As talented an artist as composer-lyricist-actor Todd Almond may be, his latest opus, Kansas City Choir Boy, feels like a work in progress. Directed by Kevin Newbury, the version onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is a half-formed hour of musically expressed regret, occasionally buoyed by Almond’s brooding charisma and an intense amount of lighting effects.
A Midwest composer named Kansas City Choir Boy (played by Almond) is rocking out to a song he’s developing on his computer when a TV news segment reports the death of his ex-wife and muse somewhere in New York City. Our Choir Boy journeys back into the past, reliving the upbeat and rocky times with his "goddess" and muse Athena (Courtney Love). A chorus of six Sirens helps out by supplying music, conscience, and crowds.
"Let’s go back in time through my TV," Choir Boy serenades. "No, even further, till we’re black and white." Unquestionably, the largely monochromatic palette of Newbury’s production evokes ghostly images of the past. Except, that is, when the bank of D.W. Wood’s pinprick twinkle lights on the back walls and ceiling go into laser light show mode. These lights and the constantly transforming Sirens (who at one point put on running gear and jog on and off stage) are intimacy killers, taking the show out of the realm of a simple chamber piece and trying to elevate it into something it's not.
Through his reminiscences, Choir Boy is trying to find, understand, and perhaps even save his doomed soulmate. Given how quickly Almond is racing through the course of this love story, we’re not left with much explanation of what went sour between KCCB and Athena beyond the too easy "you were always meant for something more than Kansas City."
Narrative gaps are not so problematic here. Almond’s songs are rough-edged, moody, and from the gut. The performer himself, who plays both guitar and piano, makes for a plenty capable narrator of his own regret. As a sort of fragmented musical diary brought to life, Kansas City Choir Boy has a scruffy appeal.
By pairing himself onstage with rocker-actress Courtney Love, Almond has guaranteed that his play will never be dull. By the same token, when we’re watching Courtney Love, it becomes more about the voyeuristic aspect of wondering what Love is going to do, sing, or wear – and a bit too easy to tune out the rest of Choir Boy. Now 50 years old, and many miles from her cultural touchstone years fronting Hole, Love, still every bit as arresting, melds gracefully with the format and Almond’s musical sensibilities. After all, who could be more fitting a person to embody a garage band muse? Love boasts a live stage magnetism that makes this character more interesting than what Almond has written. The malevolent purr that is her singing voice suits both the free-spirited 16-year-old, and the grownup artist who has made it in the big city. Set designer Victoria "Vita" Tzykun’s configuration of the Douglas Theater places bleacher seating on either side of the stage as well as in front of the action, providing a closeness to the performers that adds to the intimacy of the production.
With a New York run already under its belt and the Boston currently under way, whatever road Kansas City Choir Boy travels next, here’s hoping Love travels with it.