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'Gulls'

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Points for degree of difficulty: "Gulls," which is receiving its world premiere at the Theatre @ Boston Court, sets out to transform Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" into a musical.

Now, there's a reason the words "Chekhov" and "musical" aren't normally conjoined: The Russian playwright's reticent world is antithetical to brassiness and belting. And this play about artists strung out in love, teetering as it is on the border between comedy and tragedy, is challenging enough to pull off -- why compound the tonal elusiveness with song-and-dance raucousness?

"Gulls" rarely takes flight, but not because Maury McIntyre's jazz score (performed live by a small ensemble) is earthbound. Quite the contrary -- there are a couple of soaring moments, even if the fleet instrumental accompaniment can't satisfy all the leaden demands of Nick Salamone's cumbersome book.

The story is updated to 1959, a point that's drilled into our heads by a superfluous narrator (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) who wants to frame the work as a morality tale about the phony promise of America.

Initially set in Greenwich Village, where Conrad (John Keefe), the poet-son of aging movie star Irenie (Rendé Rae Norman), has fallen under the countercultural influence of the Beats, the play breathlessly motors off to sunny California as the characters chase their creative dreams and futile passions.

Ever-economical Chekhov could contain the universe in a snow globe; Salamone refuses to rein in his unwieldy vision, adding closeted homosexuality, interracial romance and the McCarthy witch hunts to his undisciplined plot.

Director Jessica Kubzansky can be relied on to make everything flow as elegantly as possible (Michelle Ney's sets and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting lend aesthetic grace). And the cast showcases some fine talent -- Sabrina Sloan, who plays Nina, the screen-goddess wannabe, is particularly radiant, and her numbers with Robert Mammana's Gore, Irenie's bestselling-author beau, provide much needed lift. But the bulky nature of this reworking grounds this oversized bird.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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