Created by Rachael Warren and Amanda Dehnert Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Trinity Rep's SONGS OF INNOCENCE, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE is a show whose time has come, and it brings an exciting new dimension to Providence-area theater. This show, the creation of actress-singer Rachael Warren and Trinity's Associate Artistic Director Amanda Dehnert, challenges our notions of "what is theater" as it takes us on a fast-paced journey in song - across America, across the stories of its nameless but distinctive characters, and across the spectrum of our own experiences. Scarcely a dozen words of dialogue are spoken during the entire two-hour performance, causing some purists to raise an eyebrow, and a question: Is this theater? Approach it with an open mind. From Rachael Warren's first appearance dressed as a gas station attendant, as her expression and body language engage us immediately in her haunting rendition of Steve Earle's "Someday," the answer is a clear, resounding "yes!"
To offer the raised eyebrows some justification, the production often does more to reinforce the question than the answer. Upon entering the Chace Theater, audience members are confronted with a confusing array of cabaret tables, standard theater rows, couches, and booths reminiscent of a small-town diner. The stage area combines the musicians' corner, Burma Shave signs, a multi-level platform, and the theater's real food and beverage bar. The show begins with the introduction of the musicians and technical crew. Then there is the veritable pageant of songs of every type and style, acted as much as sung (or is it sung as much as acted?) by gifted performers who switch in and out of roles and musical styles as easily as they adjust their hairstyles and small elements of their costumes. The songs have characters, and tell a story, or a wealth of stories, at a rapid-fire pace. They draw us into their myriad little worlds, and right out of our preconceived notions.
Rachael Warren gives a phenomenal performance. After two hours of the most intense singing in a wide range of styles and personae, her rich and lovely voice never tires - indeed, it seems to grow stronger as the show wears on. Supporting vocalists Drew Battles, Justin Blanchard and Miriam Silverman add excellent harmonies, additional characters and Greek chorus effects, along with a few intriguing solos of their own. Musicians Amanda Dehnert, Kevin Fallon and Mike Sartini are equally impressive, but I would have liked to be able to see as well as hear them. Ironically, from my front-row seat, the huge piano hid them from view, even as they were being enthusiastically introduced by name.
The show includes more than 50 well-chosen songs, each one an episode in the story, ranging from classics such as "Harlem Nocturne" to new takes on such familiar melodies as the Beatles' "In My Life" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." The eclectic mix also offers several new songs that most audience members will be hearing for the very memorable first time. In any case, the audience will have never seen them like this.
Scenes (if one can call them that) take us through beginnings (the innocence of childhood), moments we wish we could relive (such as the first bloom of young love) and where we fear to go (such as the death of a beloved spouse). It shows our defining moments of awkward beauty, such as the trembling young prom date (Battles) offering a corsage, and ugliness, such as the smug seducer bragging to his conquest about having told her a pack of lies (kudos to Rachael Warren for playing this and several other male roles very effectively without affecting a masculine voice or demeanor). The show's overriding theme is one of a journey that eventually takes us home, regardless of whether home is the place from which we started. Some of the waystations, and the memories they invoke, make us shudder. Others lead us to triumphant new heights on a roller-coaster of emotions. Still others simply raise more questions. But do we really need to have all the answers to enjoy the ride?
This is not Trinity Rep as you have known it. It is not a play in linear time. Nor is it a concert or music video or cabaret. It is, however, an outstanding achievement. Leave your preconceptions at the door, and turn off your labels along with your pagers and cell phones. Then take the journey with SONGS OF INNOCENCE, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE. You'll arrive at your destination a bit frazzled and out of breath, but you'll be very glad you made the trip.