Between the Sea and Sky at the New York Musical Festival this last weekend was a wonderful production of an intriguing story, written by a talented team, and presented with passion by a fine ensemble. All that added up to a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience, which proved you don’t need millions of dollars to create theatrical magic. I wish I could leave it at that. But the show isn’t perfectly formed yet, nor quite sure of whom its audience should be. Whether the problems with the writing get in the way of your enjoying the sum of the parts depends on what you expect from the experience.
The show opens on a mysterious Woman in White (the ethereal beauty, Sarah Jane Shanks), singing with more reverb than an Enya album which is a hint at something, about the stories of our lives intersecting. That accompanies an extended pantomime to introduce the story of a family being torn apart behind her. Emily, meant to be age 9 (Jessica Turn), and Samantha or “Sam” (Jenny Rose Baker) meant to be age 13, both convincingly played by young adults, are seen playing on the beach, where Em gives Sam a book of Shakespeare plays which once belonged to their Grandmother (Barbara McCulloh). Then we see their parents argue in mime, and the two girls each go to one of them. Clearly, divorce is in the air.
My initial suspicion was that we were going to see a play about the pain of divorce and its effect on the two young girls growing up. Surprisingly, that’s not what happens at all. In fact, the entire divorce plotline could be cut from this show and have no effect on the story whatsoever.
Then, the girls go to visit their paternal grandmother at Diamond Beach, where they often played growing up. The Diamond Beach community harbors an old mystery from thirty years earlier, which the townsfolk won’t discuss. I only wish it turned out that they had some hand in it, as in the Nightmare on Elm Streetmovies. But it’s a red herring.
Thirty years earlier, a group of visiting hippies came to Diamond Beach with a beautiful woman, Mary, and her young daughter, Charlotte. When an unexpected storm came upon them, the woman and her daughter were swept out to sea…or were they? The answer to that question is the heart of the mystery, and I won’t spoil it for you. Luke Burne, who wrote book, music and lyrics for this show, does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing, and finally paying off our expectations.
Matters are complicated when Sam and her childhood buddy, Vincent (Thaddeus Kolwicz) leave Em to play on the beach and she disappears. Sam and Vincent go on a quest to find her, which turns up a genuine ghost story. Without giving too much away, I will say that the ghost, when we encounter it, is far too corporeal and not enough of a threat to Em’s safety.
Throughout al of this, the parents are absent, Grandma is kind but ineffective, and there are no relationship or characters arcs, except for a little friction between the sisters, to deepen the story. It’s very much a situation dramedy rather than a character driven story. The songs by Mr. Byrne are really beautiful and well written as far as they go. But they don’t grow from the needs or inner lives of the characters. Essentially, this show is no more than a Nancy Drew mystery set to music. Detective stories may be intriguing. But unto themselves they lack the emotional moments that makes for a great musical.
The four supporting players, Caroline Lellouche, Jason Moody, Jordan Bell and Anna L. Baker, start the show as dapper anthropomorphic seagulls with a Checkovian flair, and then become four of the five townspeople. They also move the set pieces with well choreographed fluidity, turning a couple of benches and chairs into various locations and objects. My favorite was the makeshift motorboat, trailing behind four blue umbrellas representing the sea in front of them. As the townspeople, the four supporting players have several scenes in which they are members of a very bad local theater troupe getting ready to put on a production of The Tempest, which draws Sam to them. There was some funny stuff there, especially a monologue overly illustrated with hand gestures by Jordan Bell. But I’d cut most or all of that to make room for more character development. Sam’s interest in her book of Shakespeare plays is all the motivation she needs to utter Prospero’s speech, which opens the gateway to the other world.
Also, Old Pat, an irish woman with an unexplained connection to pagan magic presumably due to her Celtic roots (also played with gusto by Ms. McCulloh) should probably be a more direct part of the resolution of the story.
Thanks to the unforced fluid and direction of Mr. Bello, aided by fine choreography from Jim Cooney, and the uniformly excellent performances, the total theatrical experience never lags. Credit scenic designer Joshua Warner, costume designer Heather Carey, lighting designer Jessica Creager, and sound designer Josh Liebert for their fine collaborative effort. Also, high praise goes to the fine musical direction by Elizabeth Doran, who wrapped the show in a cozy, musical blanket.
The lack of depth of character in both story and song, no matter how well played, raises the same question I had about Make a Wish earlier in the Festival. Is this is just an overlong Theater for Young Audiences show, or an underwritten family show for the main stage? The high production quality lets the question slide.
For twentysomethings to play pre-teens is a big stretch. So hats off to all three adult performers who were perfectly convincing without ever condescending. Particular kudos go to Jenny Rose Baker, who was simply delightful. She captured all the gawkiness, youthful passion, and innate wisdom of young Sam, with an infectious charm. Thank casting director Cindy Rush for finding them all.
I don’t know if this show will ever be another Secret Garden. But it deserves to be seen again. And developed further.