Theater review: “The Crossing” is still a work in progress, but its unique point-of-view, accomplished singers and interesting score ensure Schmeater’s first musical is a notable debut.
There typically aren’t many firsts left after 25 years, but the venerable Theater Schmeater is setting out to prove new tricks aren’t limited to upstarts with its first-ever production of a musical.
It takes some real doing to imagine a full-fledged musical production in Schmeater’s old Capitol Hill basement space, but it’s not as if its current Belltown home is much roomier. In such cozy confines, one might expect a manageable starter musical — maybe something with just a couple of characters or even a revue.
Instead, Schmeater is jumping in headfirst, staging “The Crossing,” an original work about Amelia Earhart with an ambitious, moody score by Paul Lewis. Directed by the Schmee’s artistic director Doug Staley, “The Crossing” is still in an incubation stage, but its scrappy derring-do is kind of irresistible.
by Paul Lewis and Carissa Meisner Smit, through Aug. 13, at Theater Schmeater, 2125 Third Ave., Seattle; $34-$42 (206-324-5801 or schmeater.org)
Designed to be an intimate chamber piece, the show mostly fits in Schmeater’s 50ish-seat theater, though there’s nowhere convenient to place lone musician Loren Temkin (plus, Lewis’ score yearns for more than a keyboard alone), and on opening night, several actors were still attenuating their singing voices to the space.
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Also displaying some internal conflict is the book by Lewis and managing director Carissa Meisner Smit, which vacillates between embracing Earhart’s mythic quality and presenting her as a credible flesh-and-blood human, whose desire to make great strides for women inspired her daring solo flights.
Tori Spero makes for a striking Earhart, whether icon or mere mortal. The script doesn’t definitively choose, but it opts not to make her the protagonist.
Rather, that would be the fictional Ray Spencer (Brian Lange), a government meteorologist who’s compelled to help Earhart plan for her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, defying depression-era cutbacks and risking his job in the process.
Initially, Ray is pressured into the gig by Earhart’s husband, publisher George Putnam (Chip Wood), but his own personal reasons begin to emerge.
Smit and Lewis have devised no shortage of psychological motivation for Ray. Long, irregular hours have strained his relationship with his wife, Mary (Maren Comendant, whose lovely voice justifies the presence of her ancillary character). He’s hiding a dark secret about his daughter that afflicts his personal and professional conscience. And he’s continually visited by a spirit of the wind in a feather-covered bodysuit who’s half-muse, half-tormenter (Kendra Pierce, half-ethereal, half-ridiculous).
Spencer can’t make up his mind whether helping Earhart navigate a potentially treacherous route is a noble cause or foolhardy participation in her likely death. Lange makes Spencer’s indecision acutely felt; even after he’s ostensibly made up his mind, a dark cloud of uncertainty is omnipresent on his face.
Supplying the comic relief are wisecracking reporter Danny Riggins (Olivia Lee, in full-on Rosalind-Russell-as-Hildy-Johnson mode) and her cigar-chomping editor (Michael Ramquist), who spend more time sparring over the angle on the Earhart story than unearthing any real news.
Lewis’ songs alternate between lush, melodramatic duets and grand ensemble numbers with overlapping vocals, and his lyrics rely heavily on meteorological jargon as metaphor — never before have isobars been referenced in so many songs.
If that sounds like a complaint, it’s not. “The Crossing” is a work still finding its footing, but its unique point-of-view, accomplished singers and interesting score ensure Schmeater’s first musical is a notable debut.