Looking back at my recent reviews (like Heart Like Fists), it's clear that the young people today want to talk about what love is -- but they're afraid you won't listen. Just as with Hearts Like Fists, Something's Got Ahold (sic) Of My Heart wins over that fear by hitting the right notes, really meaning it, and bringing something new to the table.
Before I get into the show, I think, Dear Reader, it would be useful to make a brief personal aside. I realize I haven't really gotten into much that is "personal" about myself on this blog; I try to keep the tone personal and invoke myself, but I don't talk about things like my love-life. I'm no Don Hall.
But I don't think I can disentangle my own love life from a show that is so tied to your relationship to relationships, and which asks so much of what's personal out of you. So. In brief: I have somehow avoided, in this brief early stretch of my life, to be in a relationship for longer than six months, and have not dated anyone since two dates I went on in college; otherwise, I haven't dated since high school.
The reason I bring this up and inject this, is because it led me to repeatedly "fail" to interact with the production, and definitely complicated my viewing. Hopefully it did not complicate my understanding.
To make this concrete: at the front door, after getting my ticket, I was told that I had the opportunity to "dedicate a song" to someone who I loved, or who I had once loved, on a post-it note placed on a poster. I tried to select the song Happy Together by the Turtles but couldn't remember the title -- because I couldn't remember the words "Happy Together" in the song. I think this was a pretty telling mental block.
With post-it note in hand, I put this on the board, only to realize that I was the only person who had written down the song, and everyone else had written the dedication. So one post-it note read something like "To Tony, because he was so dear to me at a time when I needed it," and my post-it note read "The Turtles -- Imagine Me And You (I Think?)". I hope the cast does not think that I used to love turtles.
FIRST ACT - I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT
The work divides itself (in some ways pretty abruptly) into three acts. The first, begins with a French lady philosophizing about love in what we're supposed to pretend is French (picture frenchysounds with a few key words in French or English with a French accent), related to us through a pair of translators.
On the one hand, Something's Got Ahold (sic) Of My Heart makes no bones about the fact that it's going to ask you the question "What is love?" sixty different ways; on the other hand, it distracts you (initially) from the fact through the humor, and engaging characters and moments, of the first sequences. Moments flit from one to another; a story of a beautiful romance in the 1930s, a gag with a skipping record player, and lots of goofy, energetic dancing.
Hand2Mouth uses the La Mama space very well; it's staged as an alley, allowing half of the audience to watch the other half, and as the moments swirl around the staging seems pretty natural. The intimacy -- where the separation between performer and audience blurs away -- lead the audience to (pretty immediately) answer questions directly from the performers, and to enjoy a personal, one-on-one relationship with the performers. Especially when the performers flirt with them.
For something as personal as a show about love, this is powerful. There was a moment when Maria from West Side Story played, and a young audience member sitting across from me, curled up on his seat, nearly burst into tears. A good reminder at how relative, and how powerful, musical experiences can be when tied to love. "Our song," and all that.
And music is a big part of this. Early on, the performers pose questions to each other about relationships (from "What is love?" to "What drew you to him?" to "How big is he?"), but never get answers. A few articulations of love are thrown out, in snatches of poetry. But the main way of communicating love, ironically, is song lyrics. For instance, one of the ensemble members leaps up on a couch and tells her loved one that she is, emphatically "never going to give [him] up, never going to let [him] down, never going to turn around and desert [him]." This is repeated with a few other songs, but the gesture is the same: "our song" gives us the ability to let a musician say the thing we want to say, as directly as we would never dare to say it ourselves.
(for me, the lyrics would probably be, "I don't need no doctor... 'cuz I know what's ailing me. I don't need no doctor... 'cuz I know what's ailing me....")
Why would we never dare to say it ourselves? Well, because we just met this person. The first act deals with how two people are attracted, and isn't shy to realize how superficial that initial attraction is -- always is. I liked her because we were wearing the same skirt and I thought that meant we had something in common. I liked her because her breasts fill out her shirt.
But the production is aware that that initial attraction doesn't actually mean we know the person, or can trust their responses to our full genuine passion. So we play it soft at first; we hide it in goofiness, we smile and have fun, we dance, and we see if it gets serious.
And that is how Something's Got Ahold (sic) Of My Heart reels in its audience: the initial attraction is light, fun, goofy, but with a substantial offer on the subject of love. That's why the philosophizing on love is translated, or presented in small scenes -- to deflect the full impact of what Hand2Mouth wants to say. So that we don't reject it as kitsch and tack.
SECOND ACT - I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU
The light river turns into a waterfall, and plunge over the edge: we've crossed from the swimming happy days of the relationship to the drama. The lighting is now dark and moody; and the performers now begin to actually tell stories, from start to finish.
Once you move from telling moments of love to stories of relationships, you encounter drama. The details, the specifics of the story -- what brought them together, why they fought, what the hardships they overcame were, and how they didn't work out. (See also: Elaine Blair on how Romantic Comedies encapsulate the optimistic beginning of relationships, and Sit-Coms tell more of the story). And now we hear the stories.
But we're still not ready to tell them directly; performers dub in for each other. Whereas the top of the show translated, now the ensemble is speaking for each other -- the stories are being shared, but not owned personally.
The moments move slower through time, the stage pictures get sharper and more defined... and the thrust staging doesn't work quite as well. I felt like I picked the "correct" side of the theater, and the rest of the audience was on the "wrong" side.
And the music shifts strongly as well -- rather than invoking pop music and songs, now we're into the world of sound, and noise; full atmospheric representation of the world of the performers.
THIRD ACT - JUST DANCE
And with a final story -- finally told in the first person -- the theatrical frame dissolves, and a new frame holds the work together. It's a concert. The performers direct address the audience, dedicate songs and stories, enjoin the audience to imagine their loves, and then rock out the mic.
Here, a lot of the choreography that threads through the work suddenly makes sense. It's all the rhythmic, snappy choreography that accompanies concerts. And this truly is a concert; not least because the performers turn out to be as good musical performers as they are storytellers and performers.
Having lured us in with the goofy early days of love, and invested us with the depth of the drama and hardships of the middle part of the relationship, we can join in the ecstatic release of simply enjoying the moment.
My only wish is that this act was tightened up a little (although perhaps this is because of my own personal relationship to everything) -- it must be hard to select what goes into this section, but after a few catharses I was a little catharsesed out.
I think this, now and forever, will be my definition of Middlebrow: a work which appropriates "lowbrow" forms, uses them to touch on some deeper subjects in a sly way without overpowering or overtaxing the average audience member.
I also think that, if you're going to produce a Jukebox Musical (ugh, shudder), you should throw away your hackneyed Elvis Presley references and go with this instead: a genuine, heart-felt work with something to say, which uses good (and familiar) music, and at the end feels like the best party in theater.