THEATER REVIEW | “Junk Song” by Upscale Theatre: Not quite a musical yet

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Upscale Theatre‘s production of Meg Lambert’s and Tom Cowgill’s Junk Song isn’t a musical yet. It’s not junk, but it’s not a musical. It resembles a musical, in that there are characters onstage interacting, often through song—but the characters are inconsistent and the plot is unfocused. The songs, rather than forwarding the plot, tend to be mostly character moments that stop the action dead or detour into random philosophizing on the state of the world. The raw material is here, but there’s still some work that needs to be done.

“Watching a herd of fools in their natural habitat beats the hell out of TV.”

The basic premise is that the show is a musical set at a garage sale—but that’s an idea, it’s not a plot. The couple trying to get rid of their unwanted stuff are Lucy (Angela Walberg) and Noah (Gabrielle Angieri). Noah’s former best friend Tom (Bruce Abas) is also selling his carpentry work at the garage sale, and clearly has a yearning for Lucy. Lucy’s brassy mother May (Annette Kurek) has also come to unload her junk at the sale, and unload a whole heap of parental disappointment on poor Lucy.

“Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Junk Song, most of the time, appears to be centered on Lucy—and it’s a good place for the musical to invest its efforts. Angela Walberg has a strong, highly trained voice and always delivers on whatever song she’s given. The problem with Lucy is she’s so easily manipulated and abused by everyone around her, and so prone to panic attacks and wilting at the first sign of stress, that she’s hard to root for as a lead character. She allows herself to be defined by the two men circling her, or her mother, or all three. She almost steadfastly refuses to stand up for herself, instead getting buffeting about by the whims of the plot.

“Keep breathing deeply into the pumpkin.”

Gabriel Angieri as Noah does such a good job convincing us that he’s a selfish jerk who doesn’t care for his wife that when the plot suddenly turns and he’s in danger of losing her, you find yourself thinking “Good, she should dump that loser.” However, the musical inexplicably seems to want us to root for Lucy and Noah to find their way back to one another and try again, so the cognitive dissonance begins to pile up in a major way. Angieri can really sell a song, too, which makes it hard to stay mad at him.

“You have no appreciation for the treasures we have in this very house.”

Bruce Abas makes Tom such an earnest fellow, totally devoted to Lucy, that we find ourselves cheering for potential adultery. Since the musical feels it must preserve the traditional family unit, Tom is sabotaged by the script in the second half so he, too, is quickly compromised as an ideal mate for Lucy. I’d argue that he’s still less of a jerk than Noah, but the audience could be forgiven for being split into two camps. Even though Abas has the least musical of the singing voices in the company, he nonetheless gamely throws himself into every song that comes his way. One wonders why the songs weren’t adjusted to fit him better, but his can-do spirit in tackling the music just ends up making the hapless Tom seem that much more likable, so it’s a gamble that pays off.

“I am easy!  I’m very, very easy!”

Lucy’s mother May is a compelling and vile creation and Annette Kurek wastes no opportunity to grab the spotlight, just as her character would. She not only chews the scenery, she devours it whole, spits it out, and then starts chomping away again. I mean all that as a compliment. May is in constant danger of overpowering and taking over the play. She is perhaps the most consistent of all the characters in that she begins the play as a self-involved harpie and ends the play as a self-involved harpie. She says some genuinely hateful things to her daughter Lucy, often in the moments when Lucy is at her most vulnerable and least able to take the abuse. I’m not entirely clear on why it is important for May to have been an exotic dancer in her early years. It certainly makes her the polar opposite of Lucy, and perhaps that’s the point.

In one of her final tirades against her daughter, the past is perhaps peeking out from behind May’s unforgiving exterior. As May rails at Lucy, it seems more accurate to see that she is railing against herself. May resents Lucy for coming along and putting an end to May’s wanton ways—but on some level May is also berating herself for becoming pregnant, and doing what society expected of her by marrying Lucy’s father. That marriage, and it is implied several others, failed spectacularly. Still, May’s unchecked libido is just as rampant and inappropriate as ever.  Much as I disliked May as a character, and much as I scratched my head about her usefulness for pushing forward the story at the center of the play, Kurek made May a (destructive) force to be reckoned with.

“My juices flow in that peach.”

And we need to talk about May’s pussy…cat. (That’s the level of a lot of the humor in Junk Song; the notion of wood as metaphor—both subtle and unsubtle—also gets lavish attention.) Her pet cat named Teddy Roosevelt. Which is a puppet. Or a stuffed cat. Or a real cat being represented by a puppet.

At first I thought May might have a little too much of an attachment to a child’s toy and be working through some of her issues with a piece of fur on her arm. But then she and everyone else seemed to be treating the cat like a real cat. Soon after, she literally tossed the cat aside in a production number and promptly forgot about it. Later, Tom tucked the cat into one of his wooden boxes and sold it to a neighbor. The bulk of the second act was spent with her wailing for the fate of her missing cat that she couldn’t be bothered with for an enormous chunk of the play that came before. I’m guessing they gave the cat a name so May wouldn’t start calling out, “Where’s my pussy?” over and over, but that gag would have fit right in, so I’m not sure why they restrained themselves. May certainly didn’t have any other lines she wasn’t willing to cross.

“Please stop.  It’s embarrassing.”

The other members of the cast (Brian Johnson, Steve Lewer, Bailey Murphy, Marisa Tejeda, and director Becka Linder pulling double duty) portray neighbors and garage sale scroungers, and though they provide some of the evening’s best harmonies and slick dance moves, they are also quite bewildering. While I understand the function of them serving as a chorus, Meg Lambert’s script seems intent on keeping them all vague and unspecific, even though they’re onstage nearly all the time, particularly in the first act. None of them are ever allowed a personality of their own. This confusion is unfortunately compounded by the choices director Linder made in staging the production. In the second act, these nondescript neighbors appear again in other costumes. I assumed until late in the action that they were supposed to be the same people who had just raided the clothing boxes at the sale to have a little fun and dress up (a pregnant cheerleader, a pothead, an old woman). In fact, they were actually supposed to be seen as brand new characters. I stumbled as an audience member in part because the characters weren’t individualized to begin with, and the trend just continued with different clothing. Also, a major supporting player who did have a name and personality starts off the second act by playing dress-up with something he found at the garage sale. So when other people also appear in tacky clothing (no offense meant to Patricia Thompson’s costumes—they work well for the non-ensemble members of the company), I assume they’re following the lead of the character that came before them.

“You, too, Brutus?  You, too?”

That character that came before them was Brutus, portrayed by Daniel Flohr. Flohr is another talented standout in this cast but his character was perhaps the most confusing of all. He was waiting in the garage first thing, before even Lucy appeared at the top of the show, rummaging through the junk, clicking the garage door opener to reveal the stash to the neighborhood. At first I thought he might be Lucy’s hunky imaginary friend, but then everyone else began interacting with him, too. Then I thought he might be Lucy and Noah’s son, but then May started fondling him and I thought, “either grandma has absolutely no boundaries, or these two are not related.” Then I just had no clue who Brutus was. A neighbor, I guess, but one that was an unexplained confidante of Lucy’s, and someone who repeatedly provided snarky commentary about the hopeless nature of the folks in the neighborhood, often to their faces. Brutus was a device so the author could have it both ways, both celebrate and undercut the slice of society she was examining. But because, like his fellow neighbors, he didn’t have any clear purpose or personality—despite Flohr’s considerable vocal and dance talents—Brutus remained a cipher. Like many things in Junk Song, he took up a lot of stage time without any clear reason why.

“One’s a loser. The other one’s just plain lost.”

Which brings us to the notion of stakes. What exactly is the point? What is in jeopardy? Why is the garage sale important? What happens if they fail (and they do fail)? There are hints that Lucy and Noah are hard up for money, but there’s no explanation of why, and no consequences for them failing to raise money off the garage sale. Lucy and Noah’s relationship is in trouble and the garage sale exacerbates that: she wants to clear space (for…?); he is a compulsive hoarder (of…? because…?) Noah has a pipe dream of wanting to run the great Iditarod dog sled race, which Lucy keeps calling the Idiot-rod (classy) but despite an entire production number devoted to it, the audience still doesn’t know why this is Noah’s big life goal. And clearly he doesn’t really care about it, because he makes no clear plans to get there. And what does Lucy want, really? And why? And how does the garage sale help this or stand in its way? If Noah, May, and Tom are all in some way lined up against Lucy’s dreams and desires, what is it she’s fighting for? What happens if she doesn’t get it? What happens if she does? How are these people’s lives fundamentally different at the end of the day than they were at the beginning? And if nothing changes, how is that a commentary on their lives, for good or ill? Junk Song seems to want to be about some, or even all, of this, but it never digs down below the surface and really tells us anything. It’s the outline of something that hasn’t been filled in.

“To tell the truth, I don’t know what I want anymore.”

There’s a curtained-off area of the garage where Noah is stashing all the stuff he just can’t part with. The play makes a big deal of the revelation of what’s behind the curtain not once, but twice. Both times, I looked closely at the conglomeration of stuff which had been hidden away. It was just random junk. No rhyme or reason for why Noah carefully accumulated it over time or what its collective purpose might be. No explanation was given. Just “look at this!” Now, “look at this, again!” And…your point? This turns out to be a useful metaphor for the experience of watching the production as a whole.

“I follow the fools.”

You’re getting over two hours of my life that I’m not going to get back. Dozens of artists devoted their time and efforts to mounting this production. What are you trying to say? Why is it important for you to say it now—in this way, with these characters? Why do you need me to listen? Upscale Theatre Productions is capable of expending a lot of resources to get a play on its feet. Junk Song has taken its first few halting steps. Now that it has learned to walk, where is it going?