Stage Door Review
Friday, February 1, 2019
music by Chris Thornborrow, book & lyrics by Julie Tepperman, directed by Richard Greenblatt
Tapestry Opera & Theatre Passe Muraille, Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Toronto
January 30-February 9, 2019
Mindy: “I worry that we’re turning into our parents”
Tapestry Opera in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille unveiled the world premiere of Hook Up, an music theatre piece intended as a hybrid of opera and the musical. In the event it seemed much more like a sung play. This is because the libretto consists almost entirely of rapid dialogue with very few sections of extended reflection or expression of emotion that would lend themselves to lyrical vocal passages, much less songs or arias. Hook Up tells an important contemporary story and tells it very clearly, but it takes its aesthetic of dramatic realism so far that it seems deliberately to frustrate any pleasure an audience could derive from the show.
The story concerns three Generation Z friends who are beginning their first year at university. Mindy (Emily Lukasik) and Tyler (Nathan Carroll) have been a couple since Grade 11. Mindy finds that her father (Jeff Lillico) has paid more so that Mindy could have a single room in the dorm, but Mindy sees this as a chance for Tyler and her finally to have some privacy in their relationship. This has made Mindy’s best friend Cindy (Alicia Ault) unhappy because she had assumed she and Mindy would be roommates. Mindy claims it must have been a mix-up at room assignments that caused their separation rather than admitting it was her father’s idea.
Cindy has no boyfriend and is thoroughly into the hook-up culture at university which involves having no-strings-attached sex with strangers just for fun. Cindy plants the seed in Mindy’s mind that by having a monogamous relationship right from the start in university that she will miss all the chances for experimentation that are now possible. Indeed, Mindy begins to look at how cozy her relationship is with Tyler and worries that they are already turning into their parents.
When Cindy claims to have seen Tyler with another girl, Heather (Alexis Gordon), when Tyler claimed he was in a study group, she implies to Mindy that Tyler is unfaithful. Mindy tells Tyler they should have a time-out in their relationship to see other people to find out if they are really meant for each other. Mindy finally accepts Cindy’s persistent requests to go partying with her and the two dress up and go to a Halloween party. When Mindy sees Tyler there with Heather, she gets as drunk as she can and goes off with a handsome guy in a cowboy outfit (Lillico) who had been eyeing her.
When Mindy returns to her dorm room the next morning she is extremely depressed. She had blacked out, woke up in a house she didn’t know and has had sex but she has no idea with whom. She realizes that this was no consensual hook up but rape.
The show tackles the important topics of hook up culture and consent head on and does so in a way that opens up discussion rather than peaching any one point of view. None of the three friends are portrayed as perfect. Cindy may be Mindy’s best friend but she doesn’t mind disturbing the security of Mindy’s relationship with Tyler because of her own loneliness. Mindy is not confident enough in her own views so that Cindy can easily sway her and lead her to think Tyler is unfaithful. Both young women are shown to pay no attention in their Women’s Studies lecture. For his part, Tyler may not be unfaithful with Heather, but he shows a surprising knowledge of internet porn. Mindy’s parents (Lillico and Gordon) are well-meaning but they are so possessive of Mindy even when she in university, we can only imagine how suffocating they were when Mindy was in high school.
Clearly as the story may be told and complex as the characters may be, the show never feels close to coming together as a play, opera or musical until the very end. This is due both to Tepperman’s libretto and Thornborrow’s setting of it. Tepperman is so keen on reproducing exactly the way that Gen Z kids speak that her libretto is completely made up of colloquial banalities and clichés. Tepperman also perversely refuses to allow her characters any moments of reflection or extended narration until the very end.
This means that Thornborrow has nothing but snippets of dialogue to work with until that final narrative section comes along. If this were a conventional musical, most of its 90 minutes would be spoken, not sung. If this were a conventional opera, most of its 90 minutes would be treated as recitative, except that Thornborrow sets the words in much too varied a way for it to resemble conventional recitative. There is, however, a certain sameness to the jagged, percussive style he uses for the dialogue until Mindy’s entrance to her room after the party. Without giving the characters an outlet to express their emotions in any extended form, the show resembles an airplane that keeps taxiing without ever taking off.
When composers began setting librettos written in prose rather in poetry, entire plays in prose began to be set as operas. Two prime examples are Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) which sets Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 prose play to music, or Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), which sets a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 prose play to music. The first key difference is that both plays may be written in prose but in both it is a highly poetic prose composed of complex, interrelated symbols. The libretto of Hook Up is so faithful to contemporary teen speak that the language is trite and inane. The second key difference is that both Debussy and Strauss create a soundworld of which the text becomes a part. In Hook Up, Thornborrow is so intent on setting the individual bits of dialogue that he never creates an overarching soundworld that has an atmosphere of its own in which the characters express themselves.
In terms of musicals, the one that comes closet to Hook Up is Jacques Demy’s classic 1964 film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg in which all the dialogue, consequential or not, is sung. Yet, composer Michel Legrand is given dialogue-free interludes where he is able to create a whole series of musical motifs that help link the disparate speeches seamlessly together. As librettist Demy also includes scenes of reflection and narration so that "Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” (“I Will Wait For You”) and the “Recit de Cassard” (“Watch What Happens”) both became highly popular, excerptible songs. In both sequences Legrand found a repeated melody that also fit the rhythm of the prose giving the two the feel of songs. Nothing like that happens in Hook Up, both because there are no extended speeches and because Thornborrow’s music merely heightens the words rather than encompasses them in a larger musical framework.
The irony behind the writing of Hook Up is the notion that for greater realism the characters must sing their words at the same speed that they would speak them. But, of course, if we are really after realism, the characters would not sing what they say at all. Thus, a false sense of what is realistic has forced the creators into fashioning a work where they prevent themselves from making any memorable, extended moments and thus prevent the singers from ever having the chance to show off their voices.
This is especially a pity since the show is so well cast. Emily Lukasik is a fine actor and well conveys Mindy’s doubt and insecurity. Her voice tends to become piercing under pressure. Most writers of opera or musicals would treat Mindy’s scene after the Halloween party as an ideal chance to give Mindy a chance assessing her emotions and state of mind. Thornborrow and Tepperman merely relegate her to silence.
Nathan Carroll makes us quite understand Tyler’s frustration with Mindy. He has a wonderfully warm voice but is never give an extended sequence to show it off. Alicia Ault is excellent at portraying Cindy as the would-be devil-may-care party girl who regards her best friend with a mixture of pity, envy and concern. Rather the reverse of Lukasik, Her voice is solid but unremarkable in its conversational mode, but really begins to shine and open up under pressure. Again it is too bad she is given so few chances to highlight her talent.
Jeff Lillico and Alexis Gordon, as can be inferred from the plot summary play a large number of roles and both keep these roles absolutely distinct. A paradox of the score is that while the three main characters are denied extended musical passages, Lillico and Gordon are not. Lillico’s best moment comes when he plays Mindy’s father and leaves a voice message on her phone. While the message could still be longer, it is one of the few times a character is allowed to sing more than five words in a row. Lillico makes the most of this and his lovely, rich voice, heard to such great effect in The Light in the Piazza in 2010, gleams as it brings out a loving father’s awkwardness and worry.
Alexis Gordon, blessed with a fine classical soprano, is privileged to have two extended vocal passages. In one she plays the professor of Women’s Studies who gives a lecture about the history of the Women’s Movement. In another she plays Tyler’s friend Heather who has something important to confide in Mindy. Heather’s narrative, like Mindy’s dad’s phone message could be longer, and most writers of opera or musical would make this a major aria or song in the show. Tepperman and Thornborrow actually do this to a tentative extent but should have knocked down their false restraint of “realism” in sung drama and allowed Heather’s narrative to be much more powerful.
It should be noted that all the singer are miked as they would be in a musical. This is likely to create a supposedly more realistic sound than occurs when singers project, but if singers can’t fill a theatre with only 185 seats without amplification, they really should not be singers.
As director, Richard Greenblatt not only makes good use of Kelly Wolf’s clever revolving stage, but employs the entire Theatre Passe Muraille auditorium in the action including the balconies overlooking the stage and the audience’s seating area. Greenblatt also makes excellent use of Montgomery Martin’s video design of smartphone screens which is essential in a show where the main characters, like normal teens, are on their devices almost all the time.
Jennifer Tung who conducts from the piano and percussionist Greg Harrison form a very tight team. The score provides for only one musical interlude for the long period when Mindy returns from the Halloween party. Finally the jagged rhythms that accompanied the dialogue give way to more atmospheric legato lines and at last we have a glimpse of how expressive Thornborrow’s music can be.
Operas and musicals looking for success in the short term may take on topics that are currently foremost in the public’s mind. In the long term, however, works last if they create music that people will want to hear again and again and showcases for voices that challenge performers. One feels that Tepperman and Thornborrow have been thinking primarily in the short term or the libretto would not be so littered with brand names of products, Twitter abbreviations or catch phrases like “Netflix and chill” that may seem archaic in ten years. If the main point of the work is to spark discussion, it certainly will do that. Musically, it is an interesting experiment but one that proves that “realism” in music theatre is a bogus term. Once characters start to sing what they think, why restrict them so tightly to a conversational mode? Why not avail themselves of all the means of expression that opera and musicals have to offer?
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Emily Lukasik as Mindy; Nathan Carroll as Tyler and Emily Lukasik as Mindy; Emily Lukasik as Mindy, Alexis Gordon as Mindy’s Mom and Jeff Lillico as Mindy’s Dad. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets, visit tapestryopera.com