Look Out Below

"New Rock Musical" Jouét sinks like one

Jouét: A New Rock Musical

A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, 6445 Forsyth (on the Washington University campus)

For more information call 314-534-1111.

Have you ever been stuck on a long plane trip next to someone who insists on telling you her (or his) life story? Once in a great while, when the person is really funny or really interesting, time flies. Most of the time, however, you find yourself looking out the window, praying for a snack interruption and counting the minutes until touchdown. Jouét: A New Rock Musical, presented by the (Mostly) Harmless Theatre, is like that annoying seat partner -- too many words for too long and no handy emergency exit.

The title is deceptive. Jouét claims to be a rock musical but actually presents a variety of musical styles -- which are the best part of the show. Composer and lyricist Allen Robertson (whose previous work has been in children's theater) makes the transition into the world of grown-up musicals with sophisticated compositions and thoughtful lyrics. The multitalented band (Shawn Hoven, Christopher Mannelli, Michael Monsey, Adam Rosen, Nick Sears) performs Robertson's compositions with verve. Susan Arnold Marks, in the title role, moves seamlessly in song and dance from one challenging style to another. If Robertson had made this a rock opera, Jouét might have been more dramatically pleasing. The problem is, Robertson is a songwriter and not a playwright, and unfortunately the ten songs in Jouét are drowned by the tidal wave of words and drawn-out monologues.

The premise: International singing star and multimillionaire Jouét is giving a farewell concert before boarding a plane to live the rest of her life in the air (with only necessary stops to refuel). It's a gimmick rather than a plot, in that it gives Jouét an excuse to tell us all the events of her life, from birth (a funny number about being born on a plane) to her abandonment by her mother, her search for her father and her relationships with abusive lovers. If she were a real-life celebrity, we might have an interest in these lengthy tales. But this is an imaginary star, and we're not invested in her celebrity status. The play needs to make us care immediately, desperately, about this woman -- and it fails.

Part of the disconnect between Marks and the viewer may be that she speaks through a microphone throughout the performance. This displacement of the protagonist's voice distances her from the audience, when we need to feel closer to her. Another disappointing element is her lack of interaction with the band -- there are five other people onstage with her, but unless she's giving one of them an order, they only communicate through notes or signs. Songwriter Robertson seems to lack the skill or desire to produce dialogue; in his few attempts at conversation he has Jouét play both parts, when he could have used band members as characters. One of the most exciting moments of the show takes place when keyboardist Mannelli sings a duet with Marks -- it creates the expectation of more interaction. But he disappears when the song is done, leaving Marks to press on alone.

Scenic designer Justin Barisonek and lighting designer Glenn M. Dunn create a fabulous look, a flashy "runway" that serves as Jouét's concert venue and a literal runway for her many flights. Costume designer Marcella Franklin misses with Marks' first costume -- a cheap-looking, ill-fitting pantsuit -- but redeems herself by giving Marks a marvelous Liza Minnelli look with a man's suit coat over a white pantsuit for her final flight. Director and multimedia designer Robert Neblett uses video technology to create humor, but none of the designers' visual panache is enough to overcome the script's deficiencies.

Robertson's weary attempts at social criticism target the Moscow McDonald's and the American dream as personified by The Brady Bunch. The nods to Cold War politics and 1970s kitsch culture are amusing, as is the audience participation in re-creating the famous "shoe-beating" outburst of Nikita Khrushchev. But it never adds up to anything meaningful, and the audience is left hungry for a real meal instead of an airline snack.

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