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The Only Thing Missing From Gone Missing Is Michael Friedman

Encores! Off-Center pays tribute to the Obie-winning composer with his 2003 musical from the Civilians.

The company of the Encores! Off-Center production of Gone Missing perform July 11 & 12 at New York City Center.
(© Stephanie Berger)

When we think of Michael Friedman, we tend to remember three big musicals: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love's Labour's Lost, and The Fortress of Solitude. But Friedman, whose death at 41 from AIDS-related illness last September shattered the theatrical community, left behind a lot more than just that trio of shows. His output was prolific, and over 16 years working with the investigative theater troupe the Civilians, he penned the scores to more than half a dozen documentary-style productions.

Gone Missing, presented by Encores! Off-Center through July 12, is one of those shows. A patchwork of stories about items that have been lost and found, the material is based on interviews conducted by the group, stitched together by book writer and artistic director Steven Cosson and made to sing by Friedman. In crafting the work in the early 2000s, the team had a major stipulation: Stories about lost items and pets were welcome; stories about missing people were not. There's a devastating irony in watching Ken Rus Schmoll's no-frills concert reading of the show. What everyone in the audience was missing most was Michael Friedman himself.

Cosson's script presents a wide variety of stories: A woman loses her mind; a police officer discusses his responsibility in excavating lost body parts; rings go missing from several people. Ideas of nostalgia, Platonic idealism, and the lost city of Atlantis also find their way into the piece, to build an exploration of the way people react to grief and hardship, and how they claw their way out from the pit of despair.

Schmoll's production, staged mostly in front of music stands like the Encores! of yore, doesn't find the thread to make it a cohesive evening. But then, the piece is so specific to the style of the Civilians that an outsider to the company with limited rehearsal is at a disadvantage to begin with. As a result, only one of the six actors really manages to find specificity in all of her work. Aysan Celik, a veteran of six Civilians shows, is effortlessly funny as a woman who loses her Gucci pump at PS122 only to find that it was at the bottom of her bag all along, and quite moving during her big number about memory loss, "Etch A Sketch."

Friedman's score is the centerpiece of Gone Missing. As a composer, he had a dazzling way of emulating different musical styles, but the resulting products never felt like pastiche. If he's riffing on the sound of Burt Bacharach or Cole Porter, as he does in Gone Missing, the songs have an extremely authentic sound to them. Then there are the songs that are unabashedly him: "Lost Horizon," which Taylor Mac delivers with full-throttle passion; and "Stars," sung by John Behlmann with very real tears in his eyes.

Those tears extended beyond the proscenium, too. The first-night audience was awash with sobs during the final section of the play, the resonance of "Stars," a breakup song, taking on a new meaning in the wake of such a terrible loss: "So when I leave you you'll know, I'm just a shadow, an echo…" Friedman might be gone, but his work will never be forgotten.

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