Review: Notes From Now Presents Songs for a Flu World
Twenty-one musical-theater writers contribute to a collection of songs about the pandemic years.
We're just beginning to appreciate the flowering of creativity sown during the pandemic, when so many writers were cloistered inside their homes (and their own brains). That includes songwriters, 21 of whom have come together under the banner of Prospect Theater Company for Notes From Now, the new theatrical concert now enjoying its world premiere (and likely only production) at 59E59.
The form of the show is not novel, and will feel familiar to fans of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World or (more appropriately) William Finn's Elegies (written in response to grief accumulated through the AIDS crisis and the September 11 attacks). Seven talented actors perform 17 numbers, all of which revolve around the pandemic years.
"Don't Swat the Bee" (music and lyrics by Adam Gwon) is about a man (a sympathetic John Yi) whose isolation has left him depressed and anxious. "Ovid" (music and lyrics by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is a sassy little ditty about a man whose self-esteem rises and falls with sourdough (performed by Josh Lamon, who could sell burnt Wonder Bread to a French baker). "Mr. What's-Your-Name" (music and lyrics by Paulo K. Tiról) sets remote learning to a rocking beat; "The Lights in the Kitchen" (music and lyrics by Masi Asare) turns one woman's makeshift Zoom set into the Copacabana (marvelous old-school showmanship from Ashley Blanchet); and "Craving You" (music and lyrics by Jay Adana) imagines one very unlucky couple who have been on 41 Zoom dates, but have never met in person because one or the other keeps testing positive for Covid. The sight of performers Thani Brant and Aline Mayagoitia sensuously probing their own nostrils with antigen swabs as they sing of their red-hot desire is simultaneously the most hilarious and revolting part of the evening.
It's not until the ninth song, the driving and melodic "Under the Snow" (music by Jaime Lozano, lyrics by Georgie Castilla, and powerfully performed by Aline Mayagoita) that Notes From Now finally escapes the oppressive cloud of Covid. Personally, I heaved a sigh of relief from behind my mask. That quickly turned to laughter in the full-cast number "Polarized," which brilliantly tells the story of political tribalism through the image of polar bears on ever-fracturing ice sheets (music and lyrics by Peter Mills, who is consistently one of the cleverest songwriters in New York). Mills returns later with the torch song "Coming Back to You" (performed by Lamon), which is destined to become a sleeper hit among musical theater fanatics. It easily earns the biggest cheers of the night.
Other songs touch on the social upheaval of 2020: "We Are Building Our Future" (music and lyrics by Troy Anthony) is an anthem for the most generous aspirations of those who marched in the streets with Black Lives Matter (Darron Hayes glowingly leads the ensemble). Numbers like "Mount Beacon" (music and lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver) and the slightly underdeveloped "A Song for Now" (music by Ethan Pakchar and Douglas Lyons, lyrics by Lyons) examine the personal ramifications of these two years of grueling, often painful change.
In no song is this better crystalized than "Soon" (music and lyrics by Michelle J. Rodriguez), about a woman who moved to New England right at the beginning of the pandemic and who has just lost her only companion in this strange territory — her cat (Aline Mayagoita pulls our heartstrings while lucidly conveying every lyric).
The emotional effect is not as palpable (nor are the circumstances as plausible) in "Still Got a Hold on Me" (music and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer), in which Judy McLane plays a woman who discovers her 60-year-old partner's twentysomething lover following his death from Covid, prompting her to drive…somewhere. The memory of her dead beau may have a hold on this woman, but we are left wishing that she would keep both hands on the steering wheel.
Such quibbles aside, director and choreographer Billy Bustamante helms a competent staging that gives each song due deference while leaving little dead air between numbers. Rodrigo Muñoz costumes the actors in street clothes that are easily modifiable with accessories depending on the needs of the number. The audio balance is perfect under the sound design of Ben Scheff, conveying the dynamic nuances in the music direction of the delightfully named Sean Peter Forte. The central piece of Riw Rakkulchon's set resembles a giant Zoom light ring made of building blocks, with compartments for stowing props. This allows Bustamante to create endless configurations, which are further differentiated by Shannon Clarke's lighting.
A network of fake flowering vines hangs over the stage. They seem out of place floating in the void of the black-walled theater, but they all point to the finale number, "Bloom" (lyrics by Alexandra Elle, music by Stephen Schwartz), a hymn of resilience celebrating those of us who made it through the last two years. It is a more appropriate visual metaphor than the creators might realize.
While I have no doubt that many of these songs will find their way into audition binders, as a theatrical venture Notes From Now is doomed to wither like wisteria in June. Already, with mandates and masks falling everywhere, it feels an awful lot like Notes From Then — an artifact of the theater's lingering obsession with Covid. The real challenge for theatermakers going forward will not be to reckon with the effects of the pandemic, but to find a way to move beyond them, as so much of the world already has.