It’s a steep unsteady climb and a rocky cluttered trail that Ryan McCurdy (Actors’ Playhouse’s Once; Off-Broadway’s Pip’s Island) leads us up to the edge in his live one-person musical Whiterock Cliff. He states, most empathically, that he has “no intention of telling you the truth” during one moment of connection, but this show reads and resonates in the bigger, wider, and more abstract plane of emotional truth-telling, even if the details don’t exactly coincide with what happened back then. McCurdy begins by walking in with a tinge of nervous anticipation, and papers fly in what seems, by accident. He calls someone on his trusted ‘never-to-far-away’ cell phone, as he somewhat attempts to settle into the studio space which will be his and our own little little version of the Appalachian Trail, with McCurdy as our emotive guide. Performing live from the Funkadelic Studios in New York for a virtual audience through April 23, Whiterock Cliff rocks and stomps forward. It’s quite the endeavor, this hike, dangerously strewn with rocks to slip or stubble on, but hopefully the view at the end will be worth the climb.
Throwing himself with a wild abandonment into and onto this Whiterock Cliff, the white carded notes of all the sensical assumptions that one-man storytelling can normally entail are flung out of order onto the floor. This compelling action points, most clairvoyantly, to a signpost set at the beginning of this trailblazing adventure on a very crooked path. Things will be complicated, it tells us, and out of the normal order of things. Jumping forward and back, like the three cameras used, plus a wide variety of instruments (including ukulele and theremin) and some fascinating looping techniques, McCurdy journeys through a creative side world that “was not supposed to be a solo show” with a manic edge, clearly having fun with the idea that it was always supposed to start with a (long) ship horn. It steps forward and stumbles, like a non-thought out attempt to hike your way through the mammoth 2,190 miles that make up the Appalachian Trail, blending ideas of memoir and history with playful stories about life choices, alongside connections to a dangerous accident (or two) and a painful divorce of two souls that once were in love. It’s messy and meandering, like a drunk man trying to guide us all down a hiking path in the dark without a flashlight, veering off into uncharted uncleared territory with an assurance that is misleading. The storytelling is unique, compelling, and creative, weaving together stories of love and pain inside a travelogue of musical tidbits that,not surprisingly, either hit home or fall mysteriously into the bush on the side of that dark path.
Whiterock Cliff definitely feels like a passion project for this eclectic storyteller, delivering forth a jumbled book of ideas by McCurdy and Ellie Pyle (Blood Brides), with a wide array of music and lyrics, also by McCurdy, that meets us halfway. He (happily) tries to avoid the apocalypse scene (“I forgot how bleak” it is) but, as directed with a loose rope by Mary Chieffo (Operation Othello), he finds his way around and back again, regardless of whether it is made up of two words or three. The most honest song, made up on the spot, sort of how this show feels at certain points, floats with an abstract unbound purpose in the warm Hot Springs just off the trail, McCurdy finds some smart deep ideas about love, depression, attachment, and survival, but as a focused undertaking, he might not be the perfect guide to lead one on such a treacherous journey. He knows the unlying story far too well to see how unclear the water can be to the uninitiated.
“Go Us!” he cries. All involved obviously want “to find a unique way to share it in this pivottable moment as so many of us are seeking to find our own method of survival.” says producer Martha Goode. “Performing live, over and over, from the artistic center of a city that has spent a year gripped by fear is its own act of theatrical transformation and rebirth.” McCurdy is clearly a musical talent, and a multi-tasking wonder, playing and performing with utter significance this complicated collection of antidotes and arrangements. It sings, especially that finale song, but does it really take us on that journey of transformation and rebirth with clarity and reason? I’m not so sure, but neither does life, or, for that matter, hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The trail songs register as unique mile markers on a haphazard trek, jumping around with a too wild abandonment of connectivity. It veers off the pathway for the sake of a complicated ‘trail turtled’ conceptualization (“Don’t google” that, just watch his feet, he tells us) that never fully plays out the interpersonal possibilities. Featuring the recorded voices of Mick Bleyer, Nick Corley, Brittany Curran, Stephen Lyons, Ellie Pyle, and Katrien Van Riel, the hike and fight with depression sets the internal engine going and keeps the adrenaline flowing, with McCurdy smiling and chuckling as he takes his jacket on and off with utter abandonment, flipping from one formulation to another. “I’m in!“, says Reese (he’s a “a very big deal“) but I can’t say that I was ever able to say that myself completely or emotionally. The show exists because of grief, and a fall, while he tries to survive the trail and transform his broken self. “If I could break myself, I’d be free.” Whiterock Cliff is most definitely poetic and creatively fascinating, but as a higher-minded journey, it stubbles on and off the pathway. The show stubs its toe and scraping its knee, as it searches for some exacting thing or way to connect and resonate fully in our collective heart and soul. I wish he found his way to that proverbial clear-minded edge as neatly and emotionally as he so desperately wants to. Maybe on the next trip down the trail, he and we will find that grand emotional vista to behold.
Goode Productions has announced that their streaming production of Ryan McCurdy’s one-man Off-Broadway musical Whiterock Cliff will be performed live at New York’s Funkadelic Studios for a five-week virtual run, with broadcasts starting March 24 and running through April 23. The live streaming performances are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 8:00 PM Eastern. The show is about 90 minutes. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased HERE.
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