It is possible to feel “A Little More Alive” at the conclusion of the musical of that title, which is being presented as part of the Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab at the St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., through August 8, but you should be ready to experience some rather mundane and predictable events in order to reach the somewhat uplifting end.
The musical is the product of a single creator, Nick Blaemire, who I can attest to being an accomplished actor-singer, and who here is responsible for the book, music and lyrics of “A Little More Alive.” To its credit, this is an original musical, not adapted from any existing novel, film or television series. But like a number of musicals being created by youngish writers these days, “A Little More Alive” consists of a fairly compact, somewhat conventional plot, in which characters spend more time contemplating their navels rather than engaging in any meaningful actions that further a plot or contribute to an exciting evening. I view many of these one act efforts as “pocket musicals,” as they contain a limited number of characters (five in this case) in a rather circumscribed situation that limits character or plot development.
In this case, however, the very able and attractive cast, several of whose members have been with the show in its previous incarnations, makes up for a lot of the work’s shortcomings. They quite effectively fill in the blanks in the show’s book and bring life beyond the page to this story of a family mired in various states of grief following the passing of the mother. The remaining Fullers, slacker-doper Nate, his Wall Street hot shot brother, Jeremy and their now “at loose ends” father, Gene, are first encountered in the basement of their home in just outside of Washington, D.C., on the afternoon following the funeral, trying to deal with the influx of visitors upstairs and spend some rare time together, since Jeremy, nicknamed “Jerm” by his family, has claimed to have been too busy at work to visit his mother during her final illness.
There are a number of resentments and jealousies between the two brothers, particularly Jeremy’s belief that his older unemployed brother is wasting his life. Blaemire, however, wants us to go into the play with a different understanding of Nate, with his opening song, “Pot at a Funeral,” which in addition to introducing us to the playful, merrily disrespectful side of the character, also alerts us that he is more lost puppy than loser, and as we eventually learn, quite capable of rising to the occasion, since he moved back home to help take care of his mother.
Blaemiere’s book features the extensive use of home videos of the Fullers, which he has carefully scripted with movement and dialogue, that capture moments from the family’s history and provides the audience with our only glimpse of Maggie, the mother who comes off as sweet, tender, caring and fun-loving. The films are projected onto the rear of the set as various family members view them and reminisce.
The plot is set in motion by a discovery that Nate makes as he sorts through a box of his mother’s belongings from the school where she taught. A set of intimate letters addressed to his mother from a mysterious Robert spurs both brothers to speculate about just who their mother was, to question their parents’ marriage and, in Nate’s case, to head to Vermont to confront this Robert who has apparently moved there in the subsequent years.
The early part of the show does have a sullen feel to it, as the plot covers not only the family’s grief, but also the antagonism between the brothers and their father’s efforts to try to reunite them even as he tries to maintain a stoic outlook. The mood is thankfully lightened by the appearance one morning of Lizzie, who despite claims by Lizzie and Nate that she is either Nate’s lover or his drug dealer, turns out to have been Maggie’s hospice worker who developed a close relationship with Maggie and her family. There’s an immediate tension between her and Jeremy, as she is willing to call him on his behavior particularly once she picks up on certain insecurities in his life, particularly as she realizes that he has been dating his boss who is married and has a child. Even more lightness is contributed by the fifth character in the play, a high school student named Molly, who the guys and Lizzie meet on their road trip. These two later arrivals help lift “A Little More Alive” into a more affirmative environment, which the show seems to beg for.
Fortunately for Blaemire and his director, Sheryl Kaller, they have cast the show with some marvelous actors and superb singers who convey much of the heart and emotion of “A Little More Alive.” Van Hughes is both exasperating and endearing as the pot-smoking slacker Nate, who reminds one of Zach Galifiniakis in his demeanor, sarcasm and appearance. Michael Tacconi is quite believable as the compact, buttoned-up, suit-wearing Jeremy, who tries to present as all-business, but is covering up a lot of internal tension and betrayal that goes all the way back to his high school days. Daniel Jenkins is fine as their father who is in the midst of life changing grief is trying to keep his family together and reconnect with his sons.
The two women are absolutely delightful, with Nicolette Robinson conveying Lizzie’s warmth and compassion and Emily Walton absolutely dazzling as the adolescent and very high Molly who establishes an immediate connection with Nate.
Blaemire’s music consists of pleasant melodies and the occasional soaring ballad, but he is strongest at writing trios and quartets for his characters, which Kaller stages in varying formations, some as the characters move actively around the stage or when they turn toward the audience and sing their hearts out. Notable is the “Good Morning” quartet between the men and Lizzie, which reveals some of the characters’ angst over “mourning,” and “Home Movies,” as the same four react to being together and watching the Fullers’ past roll by. There’s also the enjoyable “Driving,” as Nate, Jeremy and Lizzie head overnight to Vermont, and the sweet quartet that results when Molly is added to the trio.
Although Kaller does wonders with the space she has available, she does seem somewhat limited in the ability to convey the various locations consistently. The set, by Kris Stone, is a series of metal panels are moved to create rooms, with furniture moved in and out by stage hands. At the same time, some of the locations are detailed, such as the wall of organized video tapes in the basement and the family’s kitchen slightly off stage, while others such as Jeremy’s bedroom and the car are just hinted at. The panels are a dark metallic-like gray which adds to the overall bleakness of the evening, which also effectively washes out a lot of the detail in the videos that are projected on them.
Jeff Crotier’s lighting design effectively accommodates the videos and maintains the focus on the compact spaces at various parts of the stage representing different locations. Caite Hevner Kemp has done wonders with the projections (with the videos’ cast receiving recognition in the program). Vadim Feichtner is responsible for the music direction and leading the six person band which is ensconced unobtrusively behind the set, and Lisa Shriver has provided movement coordination for key moments when characters spontaneously break out into dances in their moments of introspective release.
“A Little More Alive” is certainly filled with good intentions and obviously has a lot of personal meaning to Blaemire, but it never rises to the heights of discovery and fulfillment that it seems Blaemire hopes. The cast, each of whom have a clear idea of what his or her character is about, do their best to depict their characters’ personalities while finding every bit of promise and emotion in the music. But in the end—is that really all that Blaemire wants his characters and his audience to feel—just a teeney-tiny, little bit more alive?
“A Little More Alive” runs through August 8 on the St. Germain Stage at the Barrington Stage Company. For information and tickets call 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.