Playwright: Leonard Bernstein and others. At: Next Theatre Company, 927 Noyes, Evanston. hone: 847-475-1875; $25-$45. Runs through: March 22
Last season Next Theatre created a musical from The Adding Machine, a 1920s play about a Lower Middle Class urban couple alienated from each other, for whom the American Dream remained unfulfilled. Now, Next presents a 1950s one-act opera about an upper-middle-class suburban couple alienated from each other, for whom the American Dream remains unfulfilled. Y'see, money doesn't buy happiness; or, perhaps the American Dream itself is an amorphous, ever-elusive aspiration.
The first and weightier half of The American Dream Songbook is Leonard Bernstein's 1952 Trouble in Tahiti, which concerns the marital rift and existential disappointment of Dinah and Sam ( Bernstein's father's name, not coincidentally ) . The jazz-influenced opera shows musical hints of Bernstein's Candide, four years down the road, plus thematic ideas Bernstein explored all his life: the search for happiness, the garden as metaphor—'a quiet place'—for harmony and contentment. The music is punchy, theatrical, accessible, not startlingly original but always vigorously identifiable as the Bernstein idiom: very American, sometimes parodistic and by turns sardonic and wistful as was Bernstein himself ( whom this writer knew ) . Rarely produced, Trouble in Tahiti offers both musical charms and relevance since the fundamental dilemmas of relationship and aspiration haven't changed.
The production looks good in scenic designer Collette Pollard's redo of virtually the entire theater space, carrying forth a cream-colored motif that encompasses the stage and the side walls of the theater, which feature photomurals of playwrights famous for works about the American Dream ( example: Arthur Miller and Death of a Salesman ) . The stage setting itself is simple, dark and glossy and allows the five performers to roll any necessary furniture on/off with ease. But the most important thing director Jason Loewith has done is to cast five top-flight singing actors who have mastered Bernstein's rhythms and key changes, and the sense of his words, with apparent ease under music director Jeremy Ramey, who leads a brass-rich small instrumental ensemble ( uncredited in the program ) .
The second half is devoted to the world premieres of five new theater songs by five recognized younger American composers ( alas, all male ) among them locals Kevin O'Donnell and Michael Mahler. They pick up where Trouble in Tahiti leaves off, exploring hopes and images of the American Dream—from Britney Spears to Appalachia—in a variety of always-theatrical musical styles from Rent-like anthem to jazz waltz. Pieces by Michael John LaChiusa ( very funny ) , Michael Mahler ( deadly Britney satire ) and Michael Friedman are complete mini-musicals while O'Donnell and Joshua Schmidt contribute songs. All five pieces—collectively titled The American Dream Revue—are engagingly presented and performed and are musically varied, but they don't carry as much weight as the Bernstein piece.
FYI: Next's musical version of The Adding Machine opens this week Off-Broadway.