“If I could find the words… If I could speak my heart. If I could open up… If I could sing my love…”
Anyone wondering who the next Jason Robert Brown, William Finn, or Adam Guettel might be need look no further than Hollywood’s Actors Circle Theatre where Gregory Nabours’ The Trouble With Words has just opened to standing ovations.
Like Brown’s Songs For A New World, Finn’s Elegies, and Guettel’s Myths And Hymns, The Trouble With Words is a “song cycle,” a collection of solos, duets, and ensemble pieces with relatively little book but a through-theme, in this case (to quote press materials) “the relationships people have with words as well as with each other.” However you want to describe The Trouble With Words’ nineteen songs, they make for exquisite musical theater and a breathtaking introduction to a talent we’ll be hearing about (and from) for years to come.
Directed with consummate imagination and flair by Patrick Pearson, The Trouble With Words features a center-stage Nabours leading a six-piece orchestra on piano as a sextet of supremely talented young performers bring his music and lyrics to life.
Combining a quarterback’s physique and the voice of an angel, Josh Eddy solos “Never Let You Fall” to an unseen newborn child, following that later with the sexy double-entendred “The Kid With A Heart On” (“I’m just a kid with a big heart on…his sleeve”) which he croons in classic lounge singer mode.
Stunning soprano Julianne Donelle impresses with the bittersweet “I Remember Christmas” (which ends up sung in counterpoint with “Never Let You Fall”) and a deeply moving “Johnny,” whose melodic inspiration may be the patriotic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but whose antiwar message (“Blood is dripping from our hands as we raise them to salute”) rings as powerfully as ever in 2011.
Boy-next-door Ryan Wagner entertains with the amusingly seductive “Tongue Tied” in nerdy horn-rims (“You haunt my daydreams in the light, then grace my nightmares come the night”), then both dazzles and wrenches hearts with his vocal and dramatic tour-de-force performance of “The Silence And The Rain.”
Pert blonde Sarah Phillips opens with a quietly introspective “Here We Go Again,” backed by Brian Cannaday on vibes, then amuses with a comedic “The Ballerina’s Lament,” a blues-with-a-beat number that shows off her big belt of a voice to Nabours’ witty lyrics: “When the shit hits the fan, you pick up a pen and draw a new floorplan.”
Quirky Christopher Roque’s gorgeous tenor is showcased in the jazzy pop “Listen,” to which he accompanies himself on guitar, and in the transcendently beautiful “Raincloud.” (“If I’m not afraid of bleeding, then I won’t be afraid of blood… And maybe there’s a way to find the man that I once was, before I learned to lie… and let life pass me by.”)
Rich-piped stunner Aimee Karlin completes the sixsome, first as a picket-carrying social activist in “The Busiest Corner Of The Street,” set to a medieval-sounding waltz with lots of strings, and then with the seductive “Fool’s Gold,” a torch song (“Baby loves me like Fool’s Gold”) with a honky-tonk beat.
Wagner and Karlin duet “You’re The One,” a gorgeous romantic ballad with a pulsating beat. Eddy and Phillips blend voices to the tango rhythms of “Don’t Try To Go,” which sends two of the three onstage couples for a walk on the gay side. Roque and Donelle score laughs with “The Haircut,” which has the former informing the latter that her new haircut is “different” and “nice,” a war-between-the-sexes duet which takes a surprisingly serious turn.
The entire cast open the show in six-part harmony with its bluesy title song (“The trouble with words is when things get rough they carry you away”), close it with “No Words” (“No words to make you understand: The scent of the rain, the longing to dance…”), and blend voices mid-cycle to the Dixieland blues strains of “Gotta Get Laid” (“A little sex goes a real long way”) and the sensual Brazilian cha-cha/samba rhythms of “Sextet” (“I love the way you love me. I love the way you hate me”).
The Trouble With Words moves dazzlingly from the comedic to the sensual to the profoundly moving and back again, Nabours’ exquisitely varied songs combining the best of the three supremely talented gentlemen mentioned in the opening paragraph—the complexity of Guettel, the hummability of Brown, and the humor and sheer gorgeousness of Finn.
A savvy Pearson makes sure that there’s always a spotlight on the unassuming composer-pianist, allowing him to face his six performers (and the audience) from his upstage center keyboard. The Trouble With Words is about Nabours and his music, and this inspired bit of blocking keeps us ever aware of the creative force behind it.
In addition to Nabours and Cannaday, The Trouble With Words’ superb orchestra is made up of orchestrator Brian Morales on reeds, Benjamin Coyote on cello, Daryl Black on violin, and David Lee on guitar.
Tiffany Cole merits big thumbs up for her imaginative and varied choreography, as does stage manger Michelle Stann for her vivid lighting design. The cast’s eye-catching costumes are by Debbie Dufour and Erik McEwen, with quintuple threat McEwen scoring bonus points for his hair and makeup design. Kudos go also to Jeremy Lewis (assistant director), Ric Perez-Selsky (technical director/sound design), Gedaly Guberek (web design), Brian Ludmer (scenic design), and Wagner (graphic design). The Trouble With Words is produced by Jeremy Lelliott.
The Trouble With Words represents the greatest achievement to date of Coeurage Theatre Company, which bills itself as “Los Angeles’ only pay-what-you-want theatre.” (They’ve even trademarked the slogan.) No one will be turned away for lack of big bucks, however those with deep pockets will likely be more than happy to dig deep.
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s not too soon to declare The Trouble With Words well on its way to a New York run. Nabours’ songs beg to be heard again and again (cast album please), and as brought to life by the brilliant Pearson and a couldn’t-be-better cast and orchestra, they represent the first of many great things to come from their creator.