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By Carolyn Hayes
Times are always changing; old is always begrudgingly giving way to new. The tools of today’s digitally driven music industry might be unrecognizable to the brick-and-mortar establishments of 50-some years ago, but upon closer inspection, the building blocks of craft and collaboration are well intact.
It’s this inventive spirit that provides the driving force behind “Brill” (by David Wells; music by Frank Allison), now in its world premiere at Performance Network Theatre. The play’s story takes inspiration from a revolutionary age in popular music, but director David Wolber’s conveyance of the timeless spark of the creative process is what gives this production its luster.
It is summer 1959, during the heyday of Manhattan’s historical Brill Building: Home to songwriters, publishers, recording studios, and promoters alike, the edifice is a nerve center of the music industry and a natural destination for aspiring professionals. Enter Margie Lesser (Sarah Ann Leahy), 19 and green, into the office of Jimmy Wise (Phil Powers), who has turned out modest Tin Pan Alley hits since before she was born. What Margie wants from Jimmy is not only an office partner, but an adviser and potential collaborator, and although the elder isn’t keen to be any of those things, he’s behind on rent and in no position to refuse.
Intriguingly, the office itself – the attendant sense of place – becomes a dynamic component in “Brill”‘s success, reflected in the deliberate imbalance of the stage’s real estate by set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker. His angular gaze at the unheeded world outside reinforces the warring concepts of the interior office: often a creative incubator, sometimes merely a cold and lonely room.
The initial beats of this comedy stumble between resistance and acquiescence in a pairing that evades reason, even as it refuses to feel arbitrary. The contrasts of Jimmy’s big-band mentality and Margie’s embrace of rock ‘n’ roll’s surging popularity show not only in the names they liberally drop, but throughout the design concept. Monika Essen’s costume work contrasts summer-cool clam diggers and a youthful high pony with a man whose version of “dressed-down creative type” is to abandon the suspenders. Properties by Charles Sutherland offset the daily grind at the piano (coffee cups, paper detritus, Dopp kit) with the breezy portability of a straw handbag and guitar case. Similarly, even as Will Myers’s sound scheme cleverly counts out the scenes as a series of musical takes, the songs tip the balance into a brighter, peppier age.
Wells, too, makes no bones about which way the wind is blowing in music. As the plot progresses, the larger questions that permeate are whether Jimmy’s career can adapt and survive, and where Margie’s already rising stock will take her. Their story takes shape within the framework of an extended lesson in songwriting and theory, which leads to several scenes of brainstorming and composing, sung and played live. Here, the work of music director R. MacKenzie Lewis (also credited with arrangements and additional music) is most notable for its spontaneity: Both actors are musically competent, but these characters are writers, not performers, and the cute Allison tunes capture a vital element of thinking on the fly.
With one writer a closed system and the other a seemingly born collaborator, the comic ground for personal and professional conflict is fertile. However, the most rewarding developments are cooperative, at first found in the space between verses, then picking up steam through end of each act. Leahy commands Margie’s sweetly catty foibles and shrewd business sense, but requires increasing space for her big young character’s big dynamic moments; at her most revealing, she seems to burn up all the oxygen in the room.
Yet Powers, however more subdued, holds his own as the immutable cornerstone of the production. His is a fun character to know, a veritable master at punctuating a joke, and has sly fun acceding to his scene partner while concurrently putting up roadblocks to distract her. But his real gift is in turning on a dime, which singlehandedly shepherds some clattering late plot machinery into a smooth and fulfilling story arc.
As a script, “Brill” portrays a humorous, compelling partnership of adversaries and occasionally caves in to an impulse to make it deeply personal. But anchored by breathtaking performance and charming musical flair, this production flourishes, elevating a gently uneven foundation into a towering accomplishment.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 10. 2 hours, 15 minutes. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org