“The Big One” Has Big Heart But Feels Under-Done

11107735_10206307386668624_3810527196770342390_nPresented by Lesley University
Written by Liv Cummins, Sandy McKnight
Directed by Liv Cummins
Music direction by Elena Blyskal

April 9-12, 2015
Lesley University
Marran Theater
34 Mellen Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
The Big One on Facebook

Review by Gillian Daniels

Lesley University’s pop/rock musical is, at best, is benign and rather sweet. A number of struggling Los Angeles songwriters gather in the basement of a dilapidated building at the guidance of Paul (Ryan Bevard) to workshop their music. The goal of each workshop participant is to hit it big with their work, to be featured in a commercial, movie, or by a well-known artist. Meanwhile, California itself prepares for a “big hit” from the end result of a series of earthquakes. There’s a lot of charm to its plot and character arcs, but Liv Cummins and Sandy McKnight’s show doesn’t quite come together.

Lots of musicals work as a thin frame-work to show off songs.  My favorites here include the adorable but quite sad, “Day Jobs” in which Lola (Hali Cohen), Gunther (Renan Fontes), Casey (David Himmel), Banks (Tyeese Melton), and the lost, gentle soul Monica (Casey Bogusz) hilariously bemoan balancing full time jobs with their creative ambitions. As someone in a similar position in a community of people doing that very thing, this resonates strongly.  I also enjoyed “Got to Get Out,” in which the denizens of Los Angeles try to figure out whether to stay despite the warnings of their impending doom or flee to Las Vegas.  Gunther’s naïve attempt to be socially aware in “White Male Anglo-Saxon American,” meanwhile, is en pointe parody and deeply funny.

All these songs show a clear conflict within and outside the characters. The play itself is often a bit more confused. Caitlin Bonenfant’s turn as conniving Hollywood music specialist Ravina is fun to watch but, after the fact, the character seems flat. She’s been written as a shrill “type” who spites the songwriters even though it will neither further her career or win back the affections of Paul. Similarly, pop singer Whitney Britney (Amanda Martin) is fun but a thin rather than a fully realized character. The student actors commit with enthusiasm, though, even if the material seems like it was another draft away before really being “done.”

Comedy-drama musicals are hard. The difficulty of this show is inherent in the title, The Big One, which refers both to the hit the songwriters desire and the potential earthquake that California very much doesn’t want at all. The contradiction is an interesting one but, like a lot in the play, it doesn’t feel thought through. Still, I enjoyed its airy depiction of California, a giddy place even on the brink of destruction, and the way the show sincerely roots for its characters to succeed despite the odds.

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