There are three musicals conflicting with each other in The Embracers the one it is, the one it wants to be, and, most achingly, the one it could be.
At its core lies a bittersweet glimpse into the lives of two creative people, the renowned young French artist Henri Gaudier and his Polish companion, the writer Sophie Brzeska, 20 years older than he. In the years immediately prior to the First World War, Gaudier enjoyed a popularity that equaled Modigliani's and Picasso's, and before being killed at the front at the age of 23 completed an amazing body of work that attests to his budding genius. Their tumultuous relationship should be the driving force behind this musical, and it nearly is in the sumptuous performances of Doug Kreeger and Marion Markham in the central roles. But in the end, the creators (the late Allan Reiser, Don Price, and composer Amy Engelstein) have relied too heavily on what they think a musical has to be. Scene after scene falls flat from brief, shorthand writing that buttons scenes at awkward moments, a surplus of colorful characters and situations that delay efficient storytelling, and most frustratingly from missed musical opportunities. A scene set in Sophie's cottage has such musically comic potential as a stream of authorities enter the place one by one, thinking she is running a brothel. What could have been a hilarious musical number of extended misunderstanding is instead an exasperating exchange of expositional dialog capped by an absurd number glorifying the military prowess of French men. An even more exasperating misstep comes with the first-act finale, when Sophie lies deathly ill in London with influenza, Henri leaves her, and the relatively minor character of their landlady leads the chorus boys in an ersatz English-music-hall number that brought down the curtain, if not the house. Rousing, perhaps, but pointless. Unfortunately, the whole show is riddled with such speed bumps, and the numbers like the ballads "Beauty" and "Mamushka" that delineate character and move the plot along with melodic agility get lost in the shuffle.
Price, who co-wrote the show with Reiser (presumably taking over after Reiser's death) directed with lovingly blurred vision, and the show meandered with the same lack of precision that plagues its structure. The cast was energetic and had decent voices and passable stage presence but, with the exception of the fiery leads, lacked true passion and commitment.
Long blackouts were another persistent problem, particularly since the physical production, with the exception of Terry Leong's fine period costumes, was simple to the point of nonexistent, hardly meriting the long setups between scenes. When the lights were up, however, they were bright and unvarying.
With Reiser's passing, it remains to be seen what further work will be done on The Embracers. Perhaps Price should relinquish one of his roles and let a pair of fresh, objective eyes take a look at either the book or the direction. The two central roles, their story, and their milieu have enormous appeal, and those moments that did work revealed a musical that wants to be intimate, could be ravishing, but is currently a slab of marble that has been chipped, rather than sculpted, into being.
(Also featuring Nate Clark, Liz Donathan, Richard Kent Green, Richard Leighton, Kiyoko McCrae, Frank Moran, Andrea Rae, and Ryan Williams. Set by Barry Axtell, lighting by Mick Smith.)
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita