Created by Bruce Buschel and Diane Paulus, “Eli’s Comin’ ” is a 90-minute stage show that employs the slimmest of concepts to weave together 19 Laura Nyro songs. Buschel and Paulus, who directs, have eschewed glitz. They’ve also spared us yet another songbook musical that strings tunes together with a totally unrelated plotline. Which is not to say they have done Nyro’s music any great service. Her songs are so persistently enigmatic in their poetic imagery that they defy the kind of visceral dramatization that makes for effective theater.
In 1968, Nyro recorded her second album, “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” which, along with the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” represents one of the first concept albums: All the songs in “Eli” are variations on the theme of a young woman’s awakening to feminism, sex, drugs, prostitution and urban angst — breakthrough stuff, as told from a 19-year-old girl’s perspective, for the heretofore all-male club of rock ‘n’ roll.
Buschel and Paulus try to give an individual face to those confessional songs, as well as titles from other Nyro albums. The four female performers in “Eli’s Comin’ ” have even been designated names of sorts: Emmie (Judy Kuhn), the Young Girl (Mandy Gonzalez), the Woman (Anika Noni Rose) and the Mother (Ronnell Bey). Someone called Captain (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a figure referred to in Nyro’s first three LPs, wanders the stage providing the evening’s only male presence.
Buschel and Paulus take a minimalist approach, but even with no book and no lines spoken, the action appears superimposed on the material. When the character Emmie finishes a song, she silently approaches the Woman, who skittishly runs up a flight of stairs and into the arms of Captain. Is Emmie a lesbian? Three decades ago, the simple line “You were my friend and I loved you, Emily” from the song “Emmie” won Nyro a huge following in the gay crowd. In this staging, is Emmie merely a pest the Woman wants to avoid?
A song or two later, Emmie is found making out with Captain behind a wire fence. When the song “Money” is performed, he turns pimp to the lines, “A good friend is a rare find/Their straight talk can ease your mind/A good pimp’s going to rob you blind.” The import of Nyro’s lyrics is certainly ambiguous, but what we get here is simply confusing.
A fleeting snatch of poetry frequently sets up an entire situation. Someone sings, “Eli’s coming, and the cards say broken heart,” and sure enough, Emmie visits a fortune teller to hear her cards. With the introduction of “Been on a Train,” the four women suddenly find themselves locked in a therapy session, with more soul-searching songs to follow.
The action is often so tangential to the songs that the performers — all of them remarkable singers — flounder as actresses. Granted, Nyro wrote a lot about sexual desire, but it’s hard to recall this many masturbatory body rubs on one stage. As the studly Captain, Heredia emerges as little more than some feminist revenge on Joe Eszterhas for “Showgirls.” They’ve even given him a pole to slide down and boogie with.
Vocally, “Eli’s Comin’ ” rests on more secure ground. The renditions offered here are extremely faithful to Nyro’s interpretations on the original recordings. Fans will not be horrified to discover an upbeat “Stoney End” a la Barbra Streisand. As a singer, only Rose doesn’t resort to the occasional downward transposition, but then Nyro in her youthful prime possessed a three-octave range. Those in search of a concert will not be disappointed.