San Diego Theater Review: HARMONY, KANSAS (Diversionary Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on July 13, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

GOLD DISCOVERED IN THE PLAINS

I rolled my eyes when I heard about the plot of Harmony, Kansas, a musical having its world premiere at Divisionary Theatre in San Diego. Heath is a gay Kansan farmer who lives with his cultured boyfriend Julian in a rural community, but Julian longs for more than just an agrarian lifestyle. He wants Heath to join a bunch of gay guys who meet just for fun as a non-professional singing group every Monday. Heath, who objects to blatant gayness in their homogenous community, agrees to attend – but only if Julian agrees to adding more land to their property. Turns out Heath likes singing with the boys in the band, and even bonds with them, but when the group contemplates a public performance at The Sunflower Fest, it sets off a series of events that ultimately threatens his very relationship.

Sounds corny, right? Something like a cross between Brokeback Mountain and Oklahoma!?

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY. KANSAS at Diversionary TheatreWell, composer Anna K. Jacobs and librettist/lyricist Bill Nelson have struck gold in the heartland. Likeable, heartwarming, and ridiculously charming, Harmony, Kansas – “A Brand New American Musical” – so utterly took me by surprise, even with its imperfections, that I was prepared to call some producers and encourage them to take this project under their wing. As with any newfound gold, this musical warrants assaying to remove less precious metals, but with just a few necessary plot tweaks and minor song-polishing, this very gay (and happy) musical has enough crossover appeal (and low-budget trappings) to settle in an Off-Broadway house for a healthy run.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY. KANSAS at Diversionary TheatreAs opposed to the dozens and dozens of new musicals that receive music stand readings in hell-hole storefronts, director James Vasquez and producer Bret Young offer a polished show that harkens back to the days of Out-of-Town Tryouts when professional talent was utilized for a potentially viable project. I would say that just one more production (at The Celebration in Los Angeles perhaps?) for the creators to attend to the weak-links in book and score, and we’re set. The only thing that would sadden me is if Vasquez was forced to lose even one of the 7 cast members, who each gloriously fit actor-to-role. Not only do they have distinctive personalities, but their harmonies blend well enough to actually start their own chorus (they were coached by music director and orchestrator Adam Wachter, who also accompanied on piano).

Bill Nelson sang with Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus, and penned scripts for them as well, so that explains the authenticity of his book, which is resplendent with enough kooky characters to label the show as musical comedy, but his bio tells us of a working relationship with William Finn (Falsettos), who clearly had an influence on Nelson. His lyrics are chockablock with quirky idiosyncrasies specific to that character, even as they both inform and move the plot forward. The gorgeous opening number “Kansas Land” introduces the ragtag singing group as something to be reckoned with, but also establishes place and mood with exquisite acapella harmony. Immediately afterward, Heath (the toothsome and golden-throated Jacob Caltrider) sings of the life he dreams about—and the land he wishes to acquire—in “Perfect,” a dazzling display of exposition and character which adheres us firmly to the show.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY. KANSAS at Diversionary TheatreNelson may have had Finn as mentor, but what explains the accessible and thrilling music of Anna K. Jacobs? Her score befits musical comedy, but her songs stand on their own in a variety of styles: Inspirational, blues, honkytonk, and Barbershop among them. The acme of these compositional songsmiths arrives when a fussbudget named Darrell (Tony Houck) is upset about both his dead-end relationship (his unseen lover is always on the road), and the frustrations involving fellow chorus member Kent (Anthony Methvin), who also happens to be a new paramour. At the weekly get-together, Darrell’s angst is channeled towards Julian (Tom Zohar), who innocently brought sweets. The pent-up rage may be misguided, but the song “I Bring The Snacks” is shocking, funny and a real showstopper.

Along that vein, eccentric teenager DJ (Dylan Hoffinger—a real find), explains in “Homo Kid From Kansas Blues” that a new era for gay rights still doesn’t compensate for the adversity which faces an oddball, effete teenager (who endearingly keeps dead turtles in the freezer). It’s a song that ingratiates us to the boy, but can also easily be performed over and over in cabarets nationwide.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY. KANSAS at Diversionary Theatre

One song, “Ride That Bull,” establishes Heath’s newfound joy and kinship with group leader Wiley (John Whitley) and DJ, but the song has yet to stand on its own as the showstopper it aims to be. Most troubling is the eleven o’clock number, Heath’s soliloquy “Nothing More:” there may be the ever-present elucidation of character, but the song lacks both a driving melody and universality that would knock it out of the park.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY, KANSAS at Diversionary TheatreThis isn’t really a spoiler, but in the second act, there is a funeral of Darrell’s lover, a character whom we never met. This is used as a device to propel our heroes into a state of intrepid urgency, and “The Angels Song” is gorgeous, but there is no emotional connection to the mourned soul, even as the eulogy speeches are quite effective. The whole affair between Darrell and Kent lacks resonance because of the missing third party. There definitely needs to be a disaster to impel the second act, but this one needs serious attending to. It could simply be that one of them loses his farm to foreclosure, or some such loss. But it’s tricky. I loved what was said (and unsaid) at the funeral proceedings, but I’m hoping this one plot point can be resolved. Here’s hoping it’s not a death, as it is mighty reminiscent of Stage Door, the 1937 film in which a bad actress becomes a good one when another actress offs herself (remember “The calla lilies are in bloom again?”). But these guys are already good singers—phenomenal, in fact—so good luck on this one, kids.

Rounding out the cast is Broadway veteran Bill Nolte, who plays Fuzz, the impatient, lovable, hard-working bear of the plains. As for the entire cast, I can’t picture anyone else in their roles, something which is enormously gratifying. A little more dancing-as-storytelling could be employed, but Vasquez’ staging is impeccable on Sean Fannings’ rusticated, single set of a barnyard, which ably fills the need for interior scenes.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of HARMONY. KANSAS at Diversionary TheatreHow this feel-good musical avoids being hackneyed is something of a miracle. This is the first musical I have seen in years that seriously deserves championing. Harmony, Kansas  is currently a must-see, but its future lies in the hands of a theatrical gemologist who can turn this nugget-of-a-show into a gold mine.

photos by Ana Pines, Michelle Caron and Ken Jacques

Harmony, Kansas
Diversionary Theatre in San Diego
scheduled to end on July 22, 2012
for tickets, call 619.220.0097 or visit http://www.diversionary.org

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