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Review: The cult persona of Courtney Love in ‘Kansas City Choir Boy,’ more concert than musical

Review: ‘Kansas City Choir Boy’ is more staged concert than a musical

Todd Almond and Courtney Love in “Kansas City Choir Boy.”

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Theater Critic

Courtney Love wears her ghostliness with a rock star’s swagger.

When she enters the playing area that has been set up at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where “Kansas City Choir Boy” opened Sunday, she looks as though she could vanish at will before our very eyes.

Her beauty, smudged by time, is spectral. The tattoos marking her alabaster skin (“Let it bleed” scrolled across one arm) seem like graffiti on a house that has been abandoned at different point in its history. The faraway look in her eyes suggests that she may be here only for a final goodbye.

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Part of this is intrinsic to the cult persona of Kurt Cobain’s wayward widow, the former frontwoman of the grunge band Hole and a long-standing tabloid target. But part of this is the figure she portrays in Todd Almond’s staged concert, a work that isn’t so much a musical as notes toward the development of one.

Almond, who performs with Love in this hourlong show, wrote the book for the tender boy-meets-boy musical “Girlfriend,” which was produced earlier this year at the Douglas. That show incorporated songs from Matthew Sweet’s album of the same title, but here Almond is working solo, and his focus is more on the music than on the storytelling.

Rather than a traditional book, there is a situational sketch. And rather than fully drawn characters, there are presences that are remembered and reimagined.

The production, directed by Kevin Newbury and featuring a chorus of six women designated in the program as Sirens, treats the material as a surreal hall of mirrors in a rock club. To intensify the atmosphere, additional audience seating has been set up adjacent to the narrow band of stage upon which the performance is concentrated.

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Almond portrays a musician hard at work on a recording. An old-fashioned television flashes with the report of a local girl found dead in a New York City park. This seems to be memory breaking through, the creative process haunted by an irreparable loss.

The piece unfurls as Almond’s character recollects in song the relationship he had with this romantic friend, who left him behind in Kansas City to chase after bigger dreams. Their connection is life-alteringly intense, but a happy ending is not in the cards.

There is little point in trying to reconstruct a coherent narrative from a work in which fantasy and history are so entwined. (My companion intuited that the reason this couple couldn’t last was that Almond’s character was gay, which seemed perfectly plausible but speculative.) “Kansas City Choir Boy” allows itself the same freedom that song lyrics enjoy in suggesting rather than spelling out a story.

The show would be stronger, however, if it gave the audience more of an objective glimpse of the relationship. Right now everything is a bit too subjective. Almond hasn’t provided sufficient reason for us to care about these figures, and thus the work trades on the power of the performers to supply something that isn’t in the writing.

Love, whose character is called Athena, attacks her alternative-rock numbers like a gravelly voiced goddess. The lyrics don’t say much, but Love imbues them with information all her own on conflicted longings, aching regret and tragic misfortune.

The howling emotionalism of Almond’s singing is at times overdone, but the authenticity of the wound is never in doubt. The way he lures Athena from his memory to the stage parallels the way Almond appears to be coaxing Love through her performance, reassuring her with his eyes of her singular charisma.

Love, however, disappears before the end. The Sirens take over, scattering about the playing area as her dreamlike substitutes. Love returns but the absence is quizzical — why jettison even temporarily the most potent resource of the show?

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The score is pleasingly varied. Electronic dance music is interspersed with lyrical guitar solos and duets and piano anthems. Onstage musicians, moving about as freely as the Sirens, deepen the palette with elegiac strings.

Although the production is kinetically staged (there’s a Vegas-y kick to D.M. Wood’s lighting), “Kansas City Choir Boy” is ultimately as ephemeral as someone else’s dream.

This could be research that Almond and Love to use to flesh out their project. (The work had its premiere earlier this year at the Prototype Festival in New York.) But I wouldn’t bet on the future of this particular collaborative endeavor.

Committed as she, Love betrays a slight reluctance in her performance, as though she’s not entirely sure she wants to subject herself to the sustained exposure of the theater. Perhaps this is just her character’s tentativeness to return to the realm that she left and then lost for good. But whatever the case, the show’s potential remains unrealized.

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‘Kansas City Choir Boy’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

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Ends Nov. 8.

Tickets: $25 to $99 (Ticket prices subject to change.)

Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: One hour, with no intermission

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