Nobody will accuse “Serenade” of excessive subtlety, but Jaradoa Theater’s inaugural production has energy to spare. The percussive score thumps its way through the less-surefooted moments in Rachel Sheinkin’s lyrics, and if jaded Gothamites can somehow de-snark enough to invest in the libretto’s wispy universalism, they are likely to enjoy the musical for April Nickell’s endlessly inventive staging and the strong performances she elicits from her huge cast.
Jaradoa may have only just arrived on the professional New York theater scene, but it came to win. The bite-sized Teatro La Tea (above a church just west of the Williamsburg Bridge) now houses an endless parade of street vendors, bartenders, pawnbrokers and broken people, much like the surrounding neighborhood. Joshua Henry, recently of the Broadway-bound “In the Heights,” plays Thomas, a deeply innocent silhouette artist who has struck out for “The City,” a pastiche of New York, L.A., Chicago, and every other township with the capacity to do violence to the soul.
It’s reasonable to suspect that the subsequent story will be about the loss of innocence or the triumph of virtue over vice, but somehow it chronicles neither. The admirable goal of Sheinkin (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) seems to be to create a story in which there is no antagonist, just a rainbow variety of people who sometimes misunderstand one another.
It’s not an easy task by any means, and the writer only succeeds in a limited way, but the 90-minute show sometimes takes on the feel of a Robert Altman film as Sheinkin introduces character after character in quick, sure strokes. There’s a kind of pie-eyed naivete endemic to the dialogue that doesn’t do “Serenade” any favors, but it’s hard not to be won over by the show’s sheer variety.
On that score, the music serves the proceedings very well. There’s some much-needed attitude in “Quiet Your Eyes,” a sort-of-love song that generates real heat between Thomas and the object of his affections, Hannah (a magnetic Anika Larsen, late of both “Xanadu” and “Zanna, Don’t”). Also of note is “Bank and Boo,” an innovative song about workplace drudgery that incorporates a chorus singing numbers (“three, five, two, four”) in the background.
For a run that barely stretches over two weeks, the production values here are surprisingly high, with a seven-piece band semi-obscured by a back wall made out of wooden freight pallets. Tobin Ost constructs the rest of the set and props out of similar materials, and much of the cast is in constant use as silhouettes on Ost’s mobile framed sheets, or as singing “extras” in the middle of a street scene.
Without this committed production, “Serenade” would be a tempest in a teapot — a work with only slight forward motion buoyed by several pleasant songs. With it, however, one can only hope it’s a harbinger of things to come from Jaradoa.