It’s too bad that “They All Knew,” a new musical by Robert Mitchell, is being produced on a limited budget. Without lavish costumes and sets, the production leaves nothing to watch but the show — which is such an astonishing mess that any distraction would be welcome.
To be fair, Mitchell at least aims high. The tuner’s ostensible story — frustrated musician Peter Hunter copes with the knowledge he was adopted — is really just a touchstone for examining his entire life. Peter’s parental saga is staged alongside everything from his rebellious youth to his failed marriage, his stint in musical theater to his communion with ancient spirits. Such massive plots are designed to reveal the souls of their protagonists.
This mission is especially clear in the show’s 35 songs. Most are odes to self-discovery that prove their sincerity with earnest lyrics and minor chords.
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But sincerity can’t hide shoddy craftsmanship. The lyrics are full of inanities like “I want to be staring into your steamy/dreamy/beautiful eyes,” and many of the songs are formless and boring.
Artlessness mars the structure as well. Peter’s journey loses power by meandering through tales about baseball and Hunter family vacations. The plot, meanwhile, proves impossible to follow as it jumps haphazardly through time, obscuring who and where the characters are.
Most jarring is the hodgepodge of theatrical styles. From realism to dream play to gameshow parody, “They All Knew” smashes them all into a head-scratching muddle.
Her task is admittedly daunting, but director Judith Fredericks can’t clarify the chaos. She makes sloppy use of the empty stage by never defining her space. If, for example, stage right had always represented the living room, an audience might better have been able to follow the frantic plot. But most rooms appear in several places, leaving this world without an anchor.
What little sense the show provides comes from the cast. As Peter’s adoptive father, David Tillistrand has the physical and vocal dexterity to illuminate when his character is “real” or just speaking from Peter’s imagination. Though they play countless roles, Stephan Stubbins and Annie Ramsey still give hints of character — an accent, a gesture — that suggest they’re in control of their material.
Unfortunately, the rest of the actors don’t match them. Aside from off-key singing, the universally overwrought line delivery makes every speech sound forced. This is particularly true of Adam Macdonald as Peter: He seems capable of only one emotion, vague displeasure, which suggests an actor who hasn’t thought through his performance.
In fact, none of “They All Knew” feels thought through. Its many ideas need to be corralled by a unifying vision if the musical is to see any life beyond this bare-bones production.