Before I met the extraordinary singer / songwriter / playwright Nancy Harrow, I knew of her theatrical career, but last night I had my first opportunity to see what I had only heard of blossom fully in front of my eyes: the “play with music and songs,” ABOUT LOVE, inspired by Turgenev’s FIRST LOVE. This production closes on March 22, so I urge you to revel in it while it is here and not simply something you wanted to see and missed. Nancy’s music is part of a genuinely captivating theatrical experience.
I will speak only vaguely of the plot, because it has surprises in it that I wouldn’t want to spoil. But for those who crave spice in their spectacle, even though the story is set nearly two hundred years ago, it offers all sorts of modern enticements, romantic and erotic. (Turgenev’s words, by the way, resonate as comfortable spoken English — not artificially modernized, but not the creaky translations we read as college students.) The spine of the plot deals with Peter, sixteen at the start of the evening, although we learn later that he is an adult remembering one tumultuous summer and a love affair with the daughter of a princess who lives nearby.
What makes this more than a dramatized reading of FIRST LOVE is the combined inventiveness of Harrow and Will Pomerantz. The half-dozen actors, all impressive without being overly showy, offer Nancy’s songs as not only musical interludes but emotional chorales that comment on the events and move them forward. This isn’t new in musical theatre, but the songs — striking on their own — are poignant in the context of what Peter tells us and what we see him and his fellow-players experience. There is a small gifted instrumental quartet in the back of the stage providing delightful sounds.
But my description of the experience might make it seem static: a play about a young man’s losses (I write the plural intentionally, and I am not referring to the cliche of “this is the summer I was no longer a virgin,” but something much deeper) of innocence — with music. What director Pomerantz has done is to subdivide the lines that Peter would — on the page — speak for himself among the actors. So it is nearly kaleidoscopic, as each of the actors gets a segment, in sequence, of the words. The jazz equivalent, I think, is close to “trading fours,” although what happens onstage is more entrancing than that formula.
Here’s a sample, although — as we know — video is only part of the experience one has in real time with real people performing:
and an excerpt from Nancy’s song, sung beautifully by Silvia Bond, that I admired long before I knew it would be part of this play:
One of the pleasures of the production was its energy: the actors (lovely and with wonderful singing and speaking voices) always seemed to be in a slow-motion whirl, as if I had wandered into a country dance. When one or two stood stock-still to speak or sing, it was arresting. And the elements of the production: Nancy’s songs, their simple yet powerful lyrics, the actors in sound and motion, the plot — all fused. At no point could I, or did I want to, lift one element out to examine it. The ninety minutes whirled by, and the audience was rapt. And although Turgenev’s story is, in some ways, vehemently dramatic — characters not only being passionate but retiring to their rooms as an escape from their passions and the passions of others — the production was not all primary colors and loud voices, but we experienced the shadings of emotion beneath.
I could go on, but, instead, you should visit the Black Box Theater at the corner of Elizabeth and Bleecker Streets while you can. If you don’t, you might be Blue:
ABOUT LOVE plays a limited engagement through March 22 at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street at the corner of Elizabeth Street, NYC) in the Black Box Theater. Tickets are available online at OvationTix.com, by phone at 212-925-2812, or in-person at The Sheen Center box office Monday to Friday noon to 5 PM and one hour before performances. About Love plays Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. Preview tickets (through March 3) are $25. After opening, all evening performances are $39 – $59. Rush tickets will be available at the box office an hour before any performance for $25.
May your happiness increase!