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The Cobalteans
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Andrew Bridges, Nicholas McGovern, PJ Adzima, Alex Walton, and Aleks Knezevich
Photo by Jackie Abbott

A group of young, straight men might not seem like a natural, or even workable, subject for a musical that's about the way people—most notably friends—respond to an unthinkable tragedy. After all, that's a demographic that's more apt to hold in and hold back, thereby presenting a face of strength and domination when under the skin there might be anything but. Yet it's this disconnect that lets Yianni Papadimos and Ben Chavez work alchemical miracles in The Cobalteans, their improbably gripping entry in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Papadimos (book and lyrics) and Chavez (music) don't work around the men's natural predilections to suffer in silence, they use them to show us what's been lost and why that's even more devastating than the event that ripped them apart. And make no mistake, the characters' methods of reasoning are sound: For these guys who aren't in touch with their deepest feelings, there's no guidebook for how to react when inseparable friends Gabriel (Andrew Bridges), Christian (Aleks Knezevich), Michael (Nicholas McGovern), and Noah (Alex Walton) are riven after Gabriel's death in a car accident.

The specifics of what exactly happened to everyone that night are something of a mystery even to the gang, and their meeting at Gabriel's family's Lake Erie summer home, at the behest of Gabriel's younger brother, Davey (PJ Adzima), represents the first time they've all been together in the year since the accident. The house has just been sold, making this their last chance to come to grips with everything, and each other, something that is especially difficult given how little anyone is yet able to talk about it.

What little singing there is in these scenes is pinched, distraught beyond expression: Michael, who has in many ways suffered more than the others, can barely spit out the words to "Nowhere" as he struggles to accompany himself on the guitar. But when the action flashes back to earlier times, the energy, excitement, and life that these five shared is fully apparent. They ponder questions big (why are we here?) and small (what's with the crazy woman who lives next door?), and party with alcohol and marathon guitar sessions through which their hidden selves emerge. And, alas, it soon becomes evident that Gabriel wasn't just the glue for all the relationships—he was responsible for creating the emotional language they used to speak to, and understand, each other.

The more concrete Gabriel becomes for us, the more The Cobalteans takes on a sprawling rainbow of dazzling dramatic colors that the men would probably not even recognize. Beneath the despondency and despair are vast reserves of camaraderie and, yes, joy that make you look at each person anew and lament how their liveliness, optimism, and love for each other and the world, was crushed.

This impression only strengthens with each new swing of the score between the morose present and the golden past, and the songs in both are equally credible and affecting whether drawing from idioms closer to modern folk (for the former) or contemporary intellectual musical theatre (for the latter). The unassuming but ideally pitched accompaniment (beautifully orchestrated for piano, drums, guitar, bass, cello, and violin, by Jordon Ross Weinhold and energetically led by musical director Kristen Lee Rosenfeld) is layered with additional guitar playing from the performers that adds an additional human dimension to a song stack that's already as packed with humanity as it is with testosterone.

No less is true of the actors, a remarkable bunch who refuse to allow even a hint of falsity creep into the proceedings. Each gives an astonishingly complex portrayal, with each beat striking a seeming symphony; there are simply no weak links here. I was particularly thrilled with Adzima's hilariously helpless (and accurate) drunk scene; how Knezevich and McGovern show, behind even Christian and Michael's most innocent interactions, a dark tension and resentment that promises to explode later (and does), and how Bridges (who, with Papadimos, is credited with "additional music") never hints through his depiction of Gabriel at the future that is not to be.

That there are no seams to be found is surely to the credit of director Paul Stancato, who has expertly fused all the pieces into a production that is essentially Off-Broadway-ready today. The show itself, however, could still use a bit of work. The opening number, "In the Cold Blue Light of Dawn," rings with a different cadence than everything that follows, almost as if it's a remnant from an earlier draft in which the show was something very different than it now is. Papadimos tends to go overboard in emphasizing Gabriel's cosmic contributions; his lengthy speeches explicating his universal philosophy are in no way needed for us to understand his monumental impact on those around him. And in the final scene, Noah's and Michael's necessary wrap-up songs are overly obvious and even maudlin in ways that Papadimos and Chavez scrupulously (and wisely) avoid elsewhere.

As for the title, a "cobaltean," per Gabriel, is a man who's "blue in every meaning of the word." At once expansive and closed off, boisterous and depressed, a chain-drinker who's paralyzed thinking over the long-term, a hopeless romantic who's nonetheless committed to bedding as many women as possible while he still can. It's a man who embodies and embraces every contradiction, because he knows that even the unlimited has its limits. And he's the guy who mocks the woman in the next cabin for waiting forever for the sailor who will return home from the sea, yet comprehends that her long-absent paramour could be a symbol of the greatest freedom of all.

Each of these men is a cobaltean, Gabirel's theory goes, and is blessed and cursed by the distinction. So well do Papadimos and Chavez convince us of this that that word comes to be ideal as a title. But if that made-up word may be a turn-off, it's all that is in this inordinately powerful musical. And its message, about how we're eaten alive by the secrets we feel we must keep at any cost and the burdens we believe we must bear alone, is one that cuts right to the heart of everyone—not just the men who might appear to need to hear it most.

The Cobalteans
at The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015
Tickets online, Venue and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015 Guide and Tickets

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