Jonah and the Whale: A New Musical, now playing in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater, is the fourth production by local company 7th House Theater. I saw the words “bluegrass musical” and the lovely image of Jonah in the water on the Guthrie’s website and knew I had to see it. Those few things I knew about it were all such bold statements it was bound to be either a train wreck or amazing and just had to know which it was. I won’t draw this out for dramatic effect: It’s on the amazing end of the scale and the show runs through December 28th so don’t wait to get your tickets.
Any doubts I had were gone after seeing the stage when I walked in to the room. The set is a conglomeration of well worn, unremarkable items arranged meticulously around what you will learn is the town clock. It’s a ladder and a hoop with three hanging brass plates and it’s lovely. Above that blue lights shine on ropes suspended in every direction like the underside of moving water. In this way, the entirety of the production happens underwater.
It begins with happy, slightly goofy town handyman Jonah (David Darrow) learning of his wife, Susan’s (Kendall Anne Thompson) pregnancy and having a great day. He fixes the same old things for the same old endearing characters in town and tends to his beloved town clock. When tragedy strikes, small-town Jonah embarks on a cross country journey trying to outrun his guilt and recurring nightmares until he finds himself in a storm on the Gulf of Mexico.
As the set suggests, the ensemble moves around constantly, using the many random items in sometimes ingenious ways to fill in for a whole town, a congregation, a fishing boat and Jonah’s very tactile and moving underwater adventure. It does not shy away from its biblical inspiration; the vaguely depression era, vaguely Appalachian setting is perfectly comfortable with the church house praises to god and the strong themes of faith and community. The biblical story, after all, is about Jonah turning from God, going in the literal opposite direction he was told to, being thrown off of a ship in a storm and rediscovering his relationship with God in the belly of a whale.
Well into the action Jonah stumbles across a revival tent service and it dawns on you that the musical portion of the show is actually really good. It’s not the bluegrass score it bills itself as; the folk/bluegrass/Americana influence is obvious in every song and musical fill, but it all sounds very mature and Broadway-informed as well. This is particularly true as a questionable preacher (Matt Riehle) sings greasily about his own healing powers from God while desperate, damaged congregants writhe around him. Over and over they slap pieces of cloth hard and wet on wooden crates in a circle around the preacher while Jonah watches from the distance. It was then that I realized just how little this feels like a cool, local production, and more like the first version of something bound to become something incredible and more than worthy of a Broadway run.
It’s not quite there yet. It runs 85 minutes without an intermission and the ensemble’s narration does more work than it should. There are descriptions of quirky characters Jonah meets in his travels, but it would be far better to meet them as actual characters played by the more than capable, completely committed cast. The musical numbers are by and large absolutely gripping, but too few—when Jonah begins to sort through his misery it comes as a bit of a shock both because it is noticeably more direct and confessional than anything else up to that point, and because Darrow’s performance of it is so arresting and moving. The fact that Jonah goes from so quiet and reserved to so attention grabbing is not a point against the production, though. It’s another brilliant moment in a growing production.
I want to see it again and I desperately want to see it fleshed out in places with another song or two. I think it would be easy to call this the most exciting production I’ve seen in the last couple of years, both on the strength of what it is right now, and because of the incredible promise it shows.
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