"Fall Springs", a new musical, is a cartoon. Cartoon plot. Cartoon scenery . Cartoon characters.
Mayor Bradley, a Mister Rogers-like small town pol, is planning Fall Springs' semi-centennial as a center of drilling for essential oils, a natural key ingredient in lotions, cosmetics and the like. His committee is made up of: Robert, wannabe dancer and convention center director ; Veronica, a dumb blond real estate agent; and, Beverly, manager of the oil-drilling corporation and a real shark. They are each single parents. The Mayor’s estranged from his amateur geologist braniac daughter Eloise ever since Eloise’s geologist mother died on a dig in town. Robert’s daughter is a Tom Boy and town’s only lesbian. Veronica’s son, Cooper, is a crotch-obsessed, overweight nerd who likes to sniff glue. Beverly’s son, geeky Felix, suffers from his domineering mother and a crush on Eloise. All the kids play in a band they call Impending Doom. Their favorite song is “Sinking Into Oblivion”.
Essential oils are drying up so Beverly shoves through the city council a huge fracking plan. The mysterious, ex-hippie, geologist Noland, who was on the underground exploration that claimed the life of the Mayor’s wife, shows up. Tempers flare between the Mayor and Noland; Eloise gets more estranged from her father. The town gets fracked and destroyed. On an island patch of standing ground surrounded by quicksand and deep pits, the Fall Springers and Noland face realities: How evil is Beverly, really? Will they ever get to safety? Will someone have to make the ultimate sacrifice? Will the Mayor and his daughter make peace? Will Eloise and Felix ever get together?
All these vital questions get answered after two acts in two-and half seemingly endless hours, 19 unmemorable (and some unsingable) songs, and lots of dumb humor. There is a cautionary environmental tale in “Falls Springs”, and high falutin’ moral lessons, too, about community and civic responsibility but it’s all played so broadly, it’s just plain silly. “Fall Springs" is too clownish to be farce; one of the kids loses a limb and the script laughs right through it. It’s too common to be satire; it might have been different if it had the texture of a graphic novel but it plays like a comic book. “Fall Springs” feels like a high school musical. Briefly, I mistook it for an homage to that genre, but it’s too self-possessed. Director Stephen Brackett, who’s done a bang-up job with the bold, edgy “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons, plays to millennials here as he did with manic mess of “Be More Chill” on Broadway.
The ensemble cast performs enthusiastically. The most successful actor in the cast is Ellen Harvey (last seen at Barrington Stage as Joanne in “Company” two season ago) as fracking queen Beverly; Ms Harvey’s character is the best cartoon character in the script and Harvey plays a cartoon better than anyone in the cast. Set design - building facades in commercial-art style and props in primary colors -have a comic book look.
The music played by two keyboards, guitar, bass and drums is amply amplified. The best number seems to be “Not Gonna Happen” performed by the whole company in Act 2. “Fall Springs” concludes with a show of solidarity with a song called “One Arm”. It has a little bit of an earworm, so uncomplicated it sounds as if it could have been composed on a key board with…well… one arm.
Many song lyrics are run-on, non-metered character monologues . When they rhyme, the result can be both numbing and convoluted; Noland, lamenting corporate environmental negligence, sings “ever wonder what happens to ground when you suck all the juice out of it? Do you think there’s an endless supply like the milk from a horse’s tit”
The script makes cliched asides about current politics: fake news, science vs. facts, and climate change, obviously. The lowest point comes when, after the Mayor insists that FEMA will come to the rescue, Noland observes “That’s what they thought in New Orleans and Puerto Rico. Anyone who’s been tied down to a tickle party”. Tickle party? What? Tell that to the 4,751 victims of Katrina and Maria. They were real persons not cartoons.
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