A merchant seaman’s life in 1856 was a hard lot--monotonous, thankless and, often, perilous. Yet the siren call of adventure on the high seas proves irresistible to sheltered schoolmistress Abigail Whittaker, who disguises herself as a young man to join the crew of a sailing ship in “Round the Horn,” a new folk musical by Bill Howard and Paula Randol-Smith at the Venue Theatre in the Brewery Arts Complex.
This meticulously researched adventure-romance, liberally augmented with authentic a cappella sea chanteys of the period, stars Randol-Smith in a smart, sensitive performance as Abigail-turned-Abel, doggedly pursuing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum to find out about life through direct experience rather than reading.
Aboard the cargo vessel Proteus, Abel is initiated into the simple pleasures of life at sea--grog, tobacco and chantey after chantey. Her glamorous illusions are soon dispelled by harsh realities--realistically evoked by Patrik Bauldauff’s staging amid Camille M. Bratowski’s inventively condensed and detailed shipboard set.
The stern but thoughtful Captain (Daniel Kerman) proves a kindred spirit (he’s even an Emerson fan). Relieved to discover Abel’s true identity in light of the strange affections he’s developed for the youth, he even ventures an awkward courtship left inconclusive in the meandering though engaging narrative.
Also missing from the heroine’s journey is a sense of personal crisis, self-discovery and evolution a la Conrad or Melville. Having Abigail reemerge fundamentally unchanged makes her rite of passage less profound, though the scenery is pleasant.
* “Round the Horn,” Venue Theatre, Brewery Arts Complex, 600 Moulton Ave., Los Angeles. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 30. $14. (213) 221-5894. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.