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(l-r) Sean Dooley, Cynthia Sophiea, Jim Jacobson,
Alexander Bonnin, Barbara Tirrell, Paul Niebanck,
and Alice Vienneau in Leaving Queens
(Photo: Edwina Kippy Rudy)
It's called Leaving Queens and it clearly is meant to evoke the Irish-American experience. So what in heaven's name are we doing plunked down in the middle of Kosovo? The new musical at the Women's Project Theatre opens with five panicky Balkans in babushkas running randomly about the stage and singing of their lost relatives while the protagonist, a chain-smoking photojournalist named Megan Grant (Alice M. Vienneau), is chanting (to no discernible purpose) "Name, age, town; name, age, town." A cardinal rule of musical theater holds that the opening number should prepare the audience for what is to follow. This one would lead us to expect an evening of harsh Eastern European social commentary.

But no. We and Megan are soon in either Queens or Yonkers, depending on whether you trust the text or the playbill, where Megan comes home to a more personal hell. Her fatherless 11-year-old son has been suspended from school and hates his mother for abandoning him for her career. Megan's mother is coping with the sudden physical disappearance of her already mentally absent husband--a man so uncommunicative that, we are given to believe, this otherwise sensible woman married him even though she knew virtually nothing about him. Money is tight, mortgage bills are piling up, and everyone in the family is alienated from everyone else.

The author, Kate Moira Ryan, seems to want to draw a parallel between the disenfranchisement of war-torn peasants and that of the classic, Irish-American dysfunctional family. Fair enough; but she could have conveyed this in a line or two of expository dialogue rather than a protracted, cacaphonous opening sequence. Nor is this the last side trip we will take in an evening that also encompasses MOMA, CNN, the Holocaust, Ansel Adams, and two previous generations of Grants. A pity, because there is an affecting, heavily autobiographical musical struggling to get out here, one about healing familial wounds and trying to make sense of the present by exploring the past. But these potent themes are smothered by clutter, unsympathetic characters, graceless language, soap-opera declarations, and a stark production in which the main visual motif is--so help me--Venetian blinds.

Megan's confrontation with her hapless ancestors is told via what should be an interesting conceit. Dropping her portfolio off at MOMA, our heroine has a chance encounter with a tart old curator (the dependable Cynthia Sophiea) who, in one of the more jaw-dropping dramaturgical coincidences of the season, happens to have previously employed her father and grandfather. This Eve Ardenish career gal conveniently hands Megan an envelope of family memorabilia and, as Megan rifles through it, the Grant history is played out opposite-stage. We see that Megan's ne'er-do-well dad emigrated as a boy early in the Second World War, the despondent product of a loving, frail mother and one of those abusive, hard-drinking fathers so dear to Irish drama. Megan grows to appreciate that she is her father's child--we know this because she sings, "Am I more like him than I wanted to be?"--and her evolving self-discovery helps her to recognize how she has failed her mother and her own child.

Though there are solid possibilities for musical storytelling in Leaving Queens, they are undercut by Allison Narver's static direction and, in particular, Ryan's careening libretto. The attempts at humor are few and feeble (e.g., curator to Adams: "Ansel, you have to put people in your photographs!"), the cultural and historical references haphazard (Ryan refers to Kim Novak in Stairway to Heaven when she plainly means Kim Hunter), the family bickering borne out in the flattest prose imaginable, the song choices arbitrary, the lyrics stubbornly unlyrical. Even if we can write off Ryan's half-hearted rhyming as a product of these unambitious lyrical times ("solitude/multitude," "UN/ CNN"), there are still the problems of ungainly phrasemaking ("On the road of grief, tears of pain/Fall like drops of pounding rain") and confusing couplets ("I am tired, I am wired," sings Megan--well, which is she?). Finally, syntax breaks down altogether in an eleven o'clock number wherein reconciled mother and son sign a lease on a Brooklyn flat and exult, "We Could Home."

The music, by Kim D. Sherman, is perhaps more varied and colorful than the piano-cello-violin trio allows it to sound; all that semi-atonal sawing away suggests lazy Stravinsky. Certainly the score is stronger in the pastiche sequences, including a lively finale celebrating the immigrant experience. (From Ragtime to Rags to All American, these songs always work; don't ask me why.) The modern-day numbers, though, have a curiously detached feel to them; they seem to start and end in the middle of themselves, and the buttons are so faint that the audience doesn't know when to applaud. The generally substandard voices don't make a very good case for them, either.

One doesn't want to be too tough on the authors, who do get high marks for sincerity, or the actors, whose characters either don't make sense or are overfamiliar through generations of Irish plays. On the plus side, we get some handsome, well-chosen photo projections of Kosovan refugees and Ryan/Grants. There are also a couple of sprightly Ellis Island sequences, and one decently realized musical moment when Megan and the teenage version of her tormented father cross-generationally commiserate on the failings of "Dark Irish Men." The prodigal paterfamilias does eventually return, by the way, and he turns out to be not really evil--just a stock Hibernian weakling who drinks up the family wages and loves his family in a destructive way. Like Leaving Queens' creators, he means well. But the road to hell, to quote one platitude the authors somehow overlooked, is paved with good intentions. So is the road to misbegotten musicals.

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