Successful rock musicals usually have swagger, audacity and a decibel level that sets them apart from shows that don’t plug in, amp up and let ’er rip. But like most musicals that click, they also tend to tell a good story.
In its world premiere at ACT Theatre, “These Streets” does capture the raffish spirit and music of the defiantly anarchic, in-yer-face early-1990s rock scene in Seattle — a post-punk surge labeled “grunge” that produced such thrashing yet soulful bands as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, along with many, many others.
This show will hit nostalgic notes for those Seattleites who shared the excitement.
But “These Streets,” which centers on the fierce women rockers who were a vital part of that scene, has not mustered much of a tale to tell. High on ambience, it’s very light on compelling characters and plotting. And it’s as if the creators couldn’t decide to go for an homage concert, a documentary or a dramatic story of rock paradise lost and (partly) regained.
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So what co-writers Sarah Rudinoff, Gretta Harley and Elizabeth Kenny have wrought is a hodgepodge of all three. And it’s messier than Kurt Cobain’s coif, and as ragged as a pair of very distressed jeans.
“These Streets” has drawn much advance press, largely due to its focus on the unsung women — not just singers, but also guitarists, drummers, bassists — who helped kick down some longstanding gender barriers (and female images) in the rock world.
What musical director Harley’s tight, hard-driving band contributes is a rough-dozen sampling of vigorous songs originally performed by such grunge-era bands as her own Maxi Badd, Bell, 7 Year Bitch and Lazy Susan.
With strong vocals by Rudinoff, Harley and others, most still pack a punch, with muscular lyrics (when you can make them out) that lay it on the line. Those by Kristen Barry are some of the best, and there are new songs by Harley and Rudinoff (who are current members of the band We Are Golden).
The house band is positioned on an elevated stage, which is plastered with music posters and represents a small club. Dramatic sequences under Amy Poisson’s direction are relegated to the floor below, with dialogue drawn from more than 100 hours of interviews with musicians and other scenemakers.
Information overload may account for how scattered and muddled the narrative is, as meandering scenes of a grunge-era group of gal rocker roomies in their 20s overlap with takes on the same women in their 40s.
Making out who is the older version of whom ain’t easy. And there’s not much to these characters beyond the sketchy outlines of ambitious singer-songwriter Christine (Terri Weagant and later, Imogen Love); shy yet talented singer Kyla (Hollis Wong-Wear, and later Sarah Rudinoff); slogan-spouting lefty Dez (Samie Detzer, later Elizabeth Kenny) and stoner Ingrid (Eden Schwartz, later Gina Malvestuto).
Leisurely sequences of the younger women drinking, trash-talking and, theorizing about the communal, do-it-yourself nature of their scene, in between happy excursions to the Off Ramp and other happening clubs, get banal and sloppy. And they alternate with listless on-air reminiscences of a deejay (John Q. Smith) and the women, two decades later.
After Seattle’s music goes viral and commercial, the young roomies descend into jealous backbiting and feuding — irritatingly resurrected when the group holds an awkward reunion 20 years later.
Perhaps tracking the rise and fall of one band, or even one musician, would have given “These Streets” more shape, specificity and narrative drive. So far, however, it’s the show’s blazing musical interludes that best capture the guts and the glory of a special Seattle era.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org