Feature : Theater : 1.15.2009


The Song of the Self
Charles Nathan’s workshop musical at ACE
by Anna Grace

Eighty-seven year-old author Charles Nathan has a bone to pick with modern musical theater. It’s nothing but a bunch of flashing lights and poorly written music. At its best, he says, it recycles the great shows of yesteryear, and at its worst, modern musical theater lacks romance, character and substance. Nathan draws on his experience as a former trumpet player in a big band and a pre-rock-‘n’-roll songwriter to craft an old fashioned musical. And he’s looking for your feedback at the Actors Cabaret of Eugene, where his Where the Heck’s the Plot? runs for one more weekend.

Director Joe Zingo stages this play as a workshop production. Audience members are encouraged to fill out a questionnaire after the show, complete with quarter-sized pencils and a song-by-song analysis of the production. Is this another New York trend producers Joe Zingo and Jim Roberts are introducing to Eugene? Should you be paying full price to review a not-quite-finished piece? Or is this another creative way to bring the excitement of the theatrical process to the audience? 

Where the Heck’s the Plot? is at times a charmingly biographical daydream about what good theater should be. At other times it is maddeningly self-referential,  a work in progress about a work in progress. The protagonist is a really good songwriter, a talented (young) fellow who has had a few hits but whose plays don’t seem to make it big. He brings his work to two energetic theater producers whose big hearts are tempered by their business sense. They like his work, but it’s just a collection of old school music and no actual plot. Check, check, check.

The actors certainly have their hearts in this piece. Cody Mendonca plays the unlikely protagonist, Sydney, with enthusiasm. Bruce McCarthy and Gaylord Walker are perfect as producers Manny and Herman. Hannah Troxel, playing Jennie, has the voice of a 1930s movie star, and young Caleb Hartsfield makes a fine Charlie, the neighbor boy who keeps showing up at the songwriter’s house to draw pictures on crumpled-up pieces of paper full of rejected plot ideas. No one could complain that big effects swallow the show because with minimal set and very simple music, all the focus is on the singing and acting.

I have heard the process of crafting a plot likened to digging for dinosaur bones. You find one little piece that inspires you to labor over a site for years, hopefully coming up with the whole beast. Where the Heck’s the Plot? could use a little more digging, and it may be that all the pieces here don’t exactly fit this dinosaur. Charles Nathan and ACE have kindly invited Eugene audiences to be a part of this process. Nathan’s style is certainly worth cultivating, and ACE’s Joe Zingo and Jim Roberts deserve props for that. I look forward to seeing this piece perfected, so go see Where the Heck’s the Plot? and put in your two cents.

Where the Heck’s the Plot? continues through Jan. 18 at the Actors Cabaret of Eugene. Tix available at www.actorscabaret.org or 683-4368.