Review: ‘Fugitive Songs’

Even great escape plans need specificity, inventiveness and drama to make those dreams come to life, something this pleasant production spotlighting the work of two bright musical writers achieves only occasionally.

A powerful yearning weaves through the tunes that make up “Fugitive Songs,” a song cycle tailored to anyone who has ever thought of shucking his job, his mate or his life to start anew. But even great escape plans need specificity, inventiveness and drama to make those dreams come to life, something this pleasant production spotlighting the work of two bright musical writers achieves only occasionally.

Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen two years ago proved they can effortlessly capture the ache of a heart’s desire with the beautifully bittersweet “The Burnt Part Boys” at Barrington Stage, a show set for further exposure later this year at Gotham’s Vineyard Theater.

With “Fugitive Songs,” that sense of unfulfilled want and restless spirit takes on an amalgam of musical styles, including bluegrass, soft rock, pop, folk and legit. Thematically, the songs express the unsettled, unsatisfying life for a quintet of characters as they cope with their personal age of anxiety.

These young folks in their 20s and 30s don’t only aspire to the open road or succumb to wanderlust; sometimes they want change of a simpler sort — but find themselves immobile.

In “The Subway Song,” a sandwich-maker (Ben Roseberry), who likens himself to “Han Solo frozen in carbonite,” speaks of “Our generation’s cancer/Terrified of being trapped/Searching for an answer” as he asks, “You wanna six-inch or foot-long?”

In “Poor Little Patty,” two women (Halle Petro, Lucia Spina) envy the involuntary “escape” and adventures of Patty Hearst.

But often the characters do pack their bags, get in their cars or on their bikes in search of their own private I-don’t-knows.

In “Getting There,” a photographer’s assistant (D.B. Bonds) tired of developing images from other folks’ lives wants to place himself in his own picture. In “Don’t Say Me,” a former cheerleader (Petro) finds landing the quarterback isn’t everything. “Spring Cleaning” features a lover (Spina) aiming for a fresh start by throwing things out, including her boyfriend.

Most amusing is “Wilson,” a terrific setpiece that has Roseberry as a stoner on a road trip who gets mixed up in a gas station robbery. Roseberry’s terrific comic perf gives the song and the show a welcome lift of humor and energy.

But many songs drift as much as their subjects, sometimes coming close to a dramatic point only to pull away. “Spin the Dial” has a couple (Bonds, Petro) on the cusp of a breakup, frozen in their silence — but the song fails to connect. In “Passing Tracy,” a man (Todd E. Pettiford) is haunted by his ex, seeing her in every passing car — but we wait in vain for the song to go beyond the premise.

“Shine” is a long metaphoric meditation without theatrical focus. The evening concludes with songs about going back home, but it’s not clear what has been gained or shed to make the return emotionally complete.

Still, this short entertainment has many good numbers, backed by a four-piece band and performed by a top-notch cast, singing acoustically — and what a rare pleasure that is. Helmer Joe Calarco keeps the evening fluid and visually engaging.

“Fugitive Songs” is a good vehicle to check out the team of Miller-Tysen-Calarco before they hit the road. The creative troika will return this year to composer William Finn’s summer musical lab at Barrington Stage with a full production of last year’s more ambitious workshop project, “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick,” inspired by the children’s illustrative book by Chris Van Allsburg.

Fugitive Songs

45th Street Theater; 99 seats; $20 top

Production

A Dreamlight Theater Company presentation of a song cycle in one act with music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Directed by Joe Calarco. Musical direction, Justin Mendoza.

Creative

Sets, Brian Prather; costumes, Jennifer Caprio; lighting, Joel Shier; production stage manager, Max Daniel Weinstein. Opened March 9, 2008. Reviewed March 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

With: D.B. Bonds, Halle Petro, Todd E. Pettiford, Ben Roseberry, Lucia Spina.

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