One day, Cole was coaching the four female performers who play the mysterious, alluring Tarot Ladies. Like the archetypes in a Tarot deck, which can mean different things depending on whether they're turned up or down, the actors transform into other characters with a single costume change or the flick of a lyric.
Cole and Cates turned their attention to the big musical number in which Stan and Molly quarrel over their clashing hopes. The scene requires the actors to occupy separate psychological spaces but maintain their connection, like the interlocked spheres of a binary star.
"Take it easy," Cates counseled Barbour as the booming-voiced tenor struggled to keep up with the shifting tempos of "Nobody Home."
Glendening was facing the opposite challenge, trying to step up her vocal intensity, as the pregnant Molly pleads with Stan to mend his errant ways.
"Let's go back; let's try this thing, guys," Cates said.
This time around, Glendening opened up her emotions and let the tune rip. Cole gave her a thumbs-up. "Nice!" she stage-whispered. "Excellent!"
Later, the off-stage chatter turned to the question of why the American musical theater has grown progressively darker over the last decades. Sure, "Show Boat" and "Carousel" weren't all sweetness and light, but they were " Mary Poppins" compared with the contemporary post-Sondheim musical theater of "Violet," "Floyd Collins," "Ragtime" and "Rent."
Conveying that darkness while still keeping the show's design palette appealing was the task for the team of John Arnone (sets), Christina Haatainen Jones (costumes) and Daniel Ionazzi (lights). In concert with Cates and the playwright, they dreamed up the production's Expressionistic environmental design, installing a circular tentlike curtain above the Geffen stage, and covering its walls with replica vintage carny posters.
Arnone said he could remember sneaking into carny shows as a kid growing up in Dallas. "It was frightening," he recalled. "The atmosphere was one of mysteriousness, it was darkly lit. They didn't want you to see too closely."
"It was all a con," Ionazzi responded.
By the final dress rehearsal, the show was ready, or ready enough, to put up for the public. "It's still coming together, it's still a work-in-progress," several cast and crew members said, which is what showbiz people tend to say.
Now audiences will come and, as Cates said, this unusual, multihued musical will be a hit or not a hit. So hurry, hurry! Step right up! Welcome to their nightmare.