The York Theatre Company, NYC - March 2005
Reviewed by John Kenrick
(All photos below by Carol Rosegg - used with permission of York Theatre Company.)
Genuine treasures are on display at the York Theatre Company! Lingoland is a collection of theatrical jewels; songs, poems and dialogs that have been cut and polished to multi-faceted brilliance so that they warm the heart and please the eye from every angle. This is the kind of soulful fare that is all too rarely seen these days -- so it is all the sweeter to savor. With two or three new shows a year as good as this, the American musical theatre would be in mighty fine shape indeed.
Lingoland is not your garden variety revue, but more of a patchwork quilt pieced together from the songs, poems and musings of Kenward Elmslie. Musical theatre buffs know him as the lyricist for The Grass Harp -- some fans of classical music will recall his lyrics for Ned Rorem's Miss Julie. Elmslie does not merely rhyme the English language -- he alternately caresses it, squeezes it, and then bounces it about like a beloved toy, creating fresh phrasings and newly morphed words that shine forth with joyous insight into various aspects of the human experience. He takes us from the tawdry coziness of neighborhood bars to the randy fantasies of adolescence, and flies from a reminiscence of Roy Rogers' reassuring machismo to touching memories of a longtime lover taken by AIDS.
That Elmslie himself is on hand to guide us through Lingoland's linguistic landscape certainly adds to the fun. His warm voice wraps around you like the arms of an old friend, and he sings with a still-enjoyable barroom baritone. Elmslie and director James Morgan have crafted a wide range of material written over a lifetime into a rich and varied evening. No less than fourteen composers are represented in this mélange. The result is at turns uplifting, touching and enchanting -- with healthy doses of delight thrown in for good measure. Morgan also assists by providing a whimsical multi-level set that allows a gifted cast (and a somewhat airborne orchestra) to turn the York's small stage into a welcome variety of playing fields.
It would be hard to find a more uniformly gifted ensemble. Their shared numbers are joys to the ear, but each gets a chance to shine individually. Jason Dula has a ball with the cult favorite "Floozies," and Broadway veteran Jeanne Lehman offers a breathtaking rendition of "Chain of Love." Lauren Shealey dazzles in "Marry With Me," and Jane Bodle delivers a touching "One Night Stand." Steve Routman is one of the most gifted musical character actors to reach the New York stage in some years, a fact he confirmed with his hilarious takes on Elmslie's verses and songs. Musical director Matt Castle was busy making magic at the piano, so his moments in the vocal spotlight were too few -- but quite brilliant.
Lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger has done some outstanding work here, as has costume designer Suzy Benzinger. The production always keeps the focus clearly on the material -- a refreshing change from the top heavy spectacles inundating New York stages these days. A variety of talents have contributed to colorful multimedia projections that support the action without ever distracting from the superb performances. The one time the projections took an active role was in "Brazil," a delicious send-up of the Bush administration that pulls no punches.
It infuriates me that the public is willing to wait months for overpriced tickets to overblown Broadway retreads of old movies when a fresh, life-affirming musical like Lingoland sits almost ignored just a few blocks to the Northeast. If you have a passion for unique, human theatre filled with warmth and melody, by all means see Lingoland and rejoice. If you can't catch this show during its limited New York run, then treat yourself to the original cast CD that is set to come out later this year on Jay Records. Coming on the triumphant heels of Musical of Musicals and Souvenir, Lingoland proves (as if further proof were needed!) that the York Theatre Company is the strongest source for outstanding new musical theatre today.