Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Many folks would like a second chance at being a better person and a better parent, but at what price? In Bright Side, an original musical that it still in development but is receiving its world premiere at the Art Square Theatre this month, the protagonist fights desperately to beat a grim prognosis, and learns what his stubbornness has cost his wife and son.
Co-produced by the Cockroach Theatre Company and the Nevada Conservatory Theatre, Bright Side is a fresh but flawed musical that features sympathetic characters, a pleasing score, and a book that still needs considerable work. With capable direction by Will Adamson, however, and an excellent cast, this production gives the show's creators a good opportunity to build on its many strengths.
Lead character Richard Hauser is a conventionally macho man who works as an airplane mechanic and pressures his exuberant 17-year-old son Aiden to excel in wrestling even though Aiden prefers to spend his time making videos on his smartphone and preparing daily eponymous webcasts for his youthful fans. Richard's wife Shelly has a successful career in the Air Force and, while Richard professes to love her, he doesn't lift a finger either to cook or to buy groceries, even on the eve of Shelly's deployment to the Middle East; he is too busy calling Aiden a "pansy" for failing to perform the requisite number of pushups on the living room floor. When Richard discovers a lump on his breast, he is too macho to seek prompt medical treatment, and when he eventually receives a diagnosis of cancer and a negative prognosis due to its advanced stage, he perversely refuses to tell his family because he knows that Shelly would forego her deployment in order to help him. How long can he maintain the deception, and what will his distorted sense of manliness cost his family?
If this grim story, penned by Ernie Curcio, seems like a tough sell for a musical, in the execution it has a surprising degree of charm. As Richard faces his mortality and the futility of continuing to hide the truth from those he loves, he begins to reconsider his rigid ways, and starts to see his son in a different light. In contrast to their prickly relationship early in the play, the later encounters between father and son become increasingly funny and endearing. Richard's internal transformation gives the play its drive, and the audience willingly goes along for the ride. From beginning to end, the character of Aiden is delightful and engagingevery parent's dream of a teenage son (unless that parent is dead-set on raising a wrestling champion). Shelly, unfortunately, is a less well-developed charactera loving wife and parent, and devoted to her military service, but simply not fleshed out enough to be more than a crucial plot device and a foil for Richard. Given Richard's foolish views on manhood and his bullying behavior toward Aiden, one wonders why Shellya woman who makes her career in a traditionally masculine worldwould be attracted to him in the first place, let alone stay with him as his outdated attitudes became ossified. This crucial book element undermines the power of the story.
The book truly falls down a rabbit hole, however, each time Richard visits his doctor. Although the doctor is well played by the wickedly funny Marcus Weiss, these scenes seem to be from a completely different, and surrealist, script. The character of the doctor is so absurd that he might well be a product of Richard's hallucinations. Yet these scenes are essential to depicting the progress of Richard's disease, his treatment, and his prognosis; nothing in the script suggests that they take place only in Richard's mind, or that we are somehow experiencing them through Richard's distorted perception. Perhaps Curcio intended these scenes to inject comic relief. Instead, they are discordant. Curcio should trust himself and his actors more; comic relief is abundant, and far more organic, in all of the scenes between Richard and Aiden, and also in Richard's one true hallucinatory sequence (which is well written and brilliantly executed).
Bob Torti does a terrific job conveying Richard's physical and emotional transformation as the tedious macho man develops both humility and a wry sense of humor even while insisting that he will overcome incredible odds. Torti's deft comic timing works brilliantly in the later scenes with Aiden. In the hallucination scene, he plays two distinct charactersRichard himself, and Richard's inflated ego, who drops in courtesy of a video projected on the upstage screen. The contrast between the two is a master class in acting. If Torti's singing voice is not the best, he makes up for it with the conviction and intelligence he brings to his songs.
As the irrepressible Aiden, Maverick Hiu continues his winning streak after a fine performance in Heathers: The Musical at the Onyx Theatre. Hiu has admirable stage presence, unflagging energy, an expressive face and body, good comic timing, and a fine singing voice. With every entrance he brings electricity to the stage. His "webcasts" are screamingly funny.
In the under-written but essential role of Shelly, Victoria Matlock proves to be an able actress and a strong singer. Her duet with Aiden (via Skype) is a highlight; one wishes that Shelly had more stage time.
Composers Jolana Sampson and Martin Kaye provide pleasing melodies, and Sampson's lyrics are respectable if occasionally mundane. Although the program lacks a song list (perhaps because the show was still being revised late in the rehearsal process), in addition to the Skype duet one of the strongest numbers is Richard's soliloquy in which he reminisces about being a "Superdad" when Aiden was young and Richard, it seemed, could fix anything that went wrong. The song itself is moving, boasting some of the best lyrics of the evening, and Torti's rendition is perfection.
At one hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission, the show feels a bit long, and the last 20 minutes drag. Toward the end, the sequence of events seems both rushed and jumbled, and would benefit from some rewrites.
The set design by Roxy Mojica is simple and efficient, allowing for quick scene changes between the Hausers' home and the doctor's office.
The three-person band, under Angela Chan's musical direction, proves that live music adds vital energy even on a shoestring budget.
If Bright Side is not quite ready for prime time, it certainly shows promise. Fun Home proved that a family in crisis can be apt subject matter for a musical. With a little more work, Bright Side might yet beat the odds.
Bright Side continues through June 5, 2016, (Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm, no Friday performance) at the Art Square Theatre, 1025 S. First St., # 110, Las Vegas, NV 89101. For tickets ($20 general admission, $16 seniors, students, and military) or further information, go to www.cockroachtheatre.com.
Additional Creative: Lighting Design by Amanda Valdez; Costume Design by Mallory Ward