Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ira Antelis A Natural Winner With Vonnegut Musical: Between Time and Timbuktu

For me, Ira Antelis, was something like Roy Hobbs, the wunderkind of baseball in Bernard Malamud's The Natural, who suddenly disappeared, only to reappear to finally follow his dreams late in life. That metaphor only applies to the way the Antelis was in my life. I saw him as a student, who I also asked to do some teaching because he was so talented. At that time he was writing incredibly successful jingles and was poised for a career in Hollywood as the next big film composer (at least in my mind and fantasy). Then he disappeared from my experience.

Mysteriously, about a year ago, he surfaced in my life through FaceBook. He has been, of course, alive and well, very successful with music production and composing in Chicago. Ira visited New York on business, and we got together for brunch to catch up. He said somewhat casually that he was writing a new musical based on materials by Kurt Vonnegut.

This new work, Between Time and Timbuktu, was showcased at a reading on Thursday, January 14, to a packed audience at The New 42nd Street Studios. This truncated 90 minute version of the musical had an outstanding cast and was enthusiastically received. Timbuktu deserves its chance for a place in the sun, and maybe it will get it.

Based on materials drawn from several Vonnegut sources, Between Time and Timbuktu was originally a television play in 1972 that served as a satire on human freedom and the power of the imagination. As a musical, the materials are folded into a narrative that is sensitive and aptly paced by a skillful and varied score. The musical direction by Jason DeBord was outstanding, beautifully nuanced in a studio setting where such details are difficult to achieve.

Antelis's music serves to elevate the text, adopting a more traditional Broadway style that is a little bit Sondheim, a little bit Rodgers and Hart, and a lot Ira Antelis. The reading was presented with very little dialogue. The music moved the action, and certainly that should continue to be the direction for Timbuktu's narrative design.

Jeremy Dobrish managed to incorporate the materials from the larger domain of the full script and score to fashion a 90 minute, non-stop version that at times seemed a little disjointed. This almost always occurs when a work is truncated, and the problem is compounded when many disparate sources are drawn upon and sculpted to fit together.

Dobrish's direction created a cohesion that some how mitigated the disjointed structure, achieved by a sense of an ensemble performance by the cast, all of which were highly talented, full of energy, and focused for this reading. Gregg Edelman's "everyman" performance as the non-descript hero who wins a jingle contest that launches him into an outer space rendezvous with a distant constellation, eloquently blends the elements of victim and hero and elicits our sympathy and concern. Anita Gillette's comic profile as his mother is effective and at times outlandish...just as intended. Matt Cavanaugh threads his way through the work as the contest announcer who often establishes continuity, at times a little too high-keyed for the space we were in, but adds a deft touch of panache and style. The character of Bokonon may be a bit of a cliche from the 70s, but Cassady Leonard is somehow able to transcend this with a certain sense of wonder and fun. Highlight of the reading is Robert Cuccioli as Dr. Paul Proteus, on trial because of his belief in the human spirit and the destiny of man. His performance was riveting and elevated the moment beyond that of a reading.

Andrew Barrett's lyrics are remarkable. He catches the spirit and rhythm of Vonnegut almost better than Vonnegut. The lyrics manage to transform the TV adaptation into a an entirely new work and unifies the material. What emerges is structure and content that would make Vonnegut proud.

Ira Antellis is clearly engaged in a labor of love. In some ways the music is too good, too overwhelming, too many hits, too many highs, but this may just be the aftermath of a 90 minute extrapolation of the material. There is also a bit of a formulaic feeling to the some of the work, the comic relief song, the ballad, and the final piece, the title song, is a wonderful conception, designed to be the singable hit, but it comes too late, and I wonder if this kind of ballad still works on Broadway. But this show is in the tradition of Broadway at its best, so it's worth a try. I suspect the context may change as the show develops. There is no doubt that Antelis has a gift for melody and for music as narrative. He is as good and better than most that have had tremendous success on Broadway.

Most musicals go through radical transformations from first readings to Broadway. Here's hoping this material evolves as it should into such a hit that I can say I blogged about it before it was so well-known, and that I knew Ira Antelis when...

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