Thursday, October 29, 2015

SONGBIRD Based on THE SEAGULL at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, and Kate Baldwin in SONGBIRD.  Photo by Jenny Anderson Photography.
Songbird by Michael Kimmel, currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is being billed as “based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull,” but it is really much more (or less) than that: it is virtually a wholesale transfer of Chekhov’s classic melodrama from nineteenth century Russia to twenty-first century Nashville, Tennessee, with little more than the names of the characters changed (or transliterated) and the addition of some original (but not very memorable) country western tunes.  Other than that, the plot of Songbird hews pretty closely to that of the original Russian melodrama, merely substituting songwriting for playwriting and attempted suicide by hanging and traffic fatality for attempted suicide by gunshot.  And, oh yes, the substitution of a bluebird for a seagull.
Much of the action in The Seagull takes place on the country estate owned by Sorin, where Sorin’s sister, Arkadina (an acclaimed actress), has just arrived with her lover, Trigorin (a writer), to attend a presentation of a new symbolic play written by Arkadina’s son, Konstantin, and starring Nina, Konstantin’s girlfriend.  In Songbird, Sorin has become Soren (Bob Stillman) and his country estate is now a honky-tonk in Nashville.  His sister, Arkadina, has morphed into Tammy Trip (Kate Baldwin), a once famous and now fading country western music star.  Her lover, Trigorin, has turned into Beck (Eric William Morris), no longer a writer but now a commercially successful songwriter.  Konstantin is now Dean (Adam Cochran), the son who Tammy abandoned to launch her own career and who is now attempting to launch his own as – you guessed it – a writer of unconventional country western songs, much as Konstantin attempted to achieve success as a writer of unconventional plays.  And Nina, in her present incarnation, is Mia (Ephie Aardema), there to sing Dean’s song and as much in love with Dean as Nina was with Konstantin.

Also in attendance at Sorin’s estate in The Seagull are Medvedenko who is in love with Masha who, in turn, is in love with Konstantin who, as we already have learned, is in love with Nina.  Similarly, in Songbird, it is Rip (Don Guillory) who is in love with Missy (Kacie Sheik) who, in turn, is in love with Dean who, as we already have learned, is in love with Mia.  And, lest we forget, in Chekhov’s melodrama, it is Polina who is married to Ilya and carrying on an affair with Doctor Dorn; in Songbird, Polina has become Pauline (Erin Dilly), Tammy’s childhood friend, who is married to Samuel (Andy Taylor) and carrying on an affair with Doc (Drew McVety).

Unsurprisingly, Dean’s song in Songbird falls as flat as Konstantin’s play did in The Seagull, with similar dire consequences.  Mia falls out of love with Dean and in love with Beck, much as Nina fell out of love with Konstantin and in love with Trigorin, leading once again to similar dire consequences.  The unrequited loves, the quest for fame at all costs, life’s major and minor disappointments and the different ways in which we deal with them, sickness, despair, attempted suicide, and death – it’s all deja vu all over again, only this time in Nashville with music.

So if you’ve seen The Seagull, there might not seem to be much point in your attending a performance of Songbird as well, since the musical breaks no new ground and won’t really add to your understanding of the human condition – except for one thing: the cast of Songbird is absolutely superb and they have done a terrific job with the material they have been given.  Kate Baldwin is especially noteworthy as the callously self-centered and narcissistic Tammy Trip, but the rest of the cast is also first rate, exhibiting both exceptional theatrical and musical talent.  And, as a result, Songbird turns out to be considerably more entertaining than one might have expected after all. 

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