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Everyday Rapture

An unpredictable voyage of spiritual reflection.

With:
With: Sherie Rene Scott, Eamon Foley, Lindsay Mendez, Betsy Wolfe.

In “Everyday Rapture,” Sherie Rene Scott refers to herself with typical self-effacement as “one of Broadway’s biggest, brightest semi-stars.” Based solely on the evidence of this bewitching not-quite-solo show, she could flesh out that job description to include storyteller, singer, dramatic actress, standup comedian, philosopher and magician, just for starters. Smart, funny and deftly balanced in its blend of self-exposure and theatrical artifice, this musical autobiography is an unpredictable voyage of spiritual reflection that charts the path of a Kansas Mennonite in New York with charming candor.

Anyone expecting SRS to dish on her turns in shows like “Aida,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” or “The Little Mermaid” will be disappointed. This is not that kind of cabaret memoir; playing opposite eels in a padded tentacle skirt doesn’t even get a look-in. In terms of her eclectic song choices — from U2 and the Band, Tom Waits and David Byrne, the Dap-Kings, Judy Garland and a whole lot of Mr. Rogers — and her customized interpretations, Scott is doing something more adventurous.

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With help from orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt (composer of “Next to Normal”), Scott interpolates music into her story and molds it to her own style in a way not unlike guerrilla song scavengers Kiki and Herb. That style shifts fluidly from R&B to lounge act to torch singer to rocker to folkie. She closes with “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” a song Bette Midler used to perform in the ’70s heyday of her live act. It’s not just the backup girls (the Mennonettes) and the kinship with gay men, but the way Scott caricatures herself and yet sings from the heart that recalls Miss M.

But the music is just half the equation. Written by Scott with Dick Scanlan (who penned the book of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and directed by Michael Mayer (who helmed “Millie” and, more recently, “Spring Awakening”), the tight script has been workshopped to a fare-thee-well. Basically it chronicles Scott’s rumspringa, the Amish-Mennonite 12-month break from faith and austerity, which the protagonist has so far extended to 27 years.

“I’m a mole digging in a hole,” sings Scott, borrowing from Bono in “Elevation.” “Digging in my soul, now, going down. Excavation.”

She burrows back to her upbringing in Topeka, Kansas, a town with more churches than people. Scott’s family tried all of them, leaving her torn, in her teen years, between Jesus and Judy. The conflict of a spotlight-seeking personality stuck in a religious environment in which “self” is a four-letter word is amusingly explored. But it’s the promise of eternal damnation for sodomites (which the young Sherie assumes must be showbiz folks) that drives her from the wrathful judgments of Pastor Fred to the universal embrace of Mr. Rogers.

Nobody who grew up watching the iconic children’s TV host has heard his songs performed like this before, notably a compellingly sexualized “I Like to Be Told.” Scott makes a convincing case that Mr. Rogers helped her break through the Puritanism barrier, build self-esteem and articulate her dreams and desires. What’s refreshing is the absence of condescension toward her cardigan-clad guru; instead, there’s genuine, humbled gratitude in Scott’s acknowledgment of his role in illuminating her outlook.

Scott’s skill as an actress shows in her seamless turns from sly humor to break-your-heart honesty. Her account of being a Kansas girl in Manhattan for the first time is so vivid and joyous, it makes you relive your own first taste of the city. And her personal revelations — losing her virginity to a Times Square street magician; a subsequent abortion — are touching because they are remarkably unsentimental.

Perhaps the show’s most fascinating nugget is a mid-section interlude in which, with the aid of spirited young performer Eamon Foley, Scott recaps her surreal entry into the world of YouTube. This occurred after she made the mistake of reaching out to an obsessive teen who videoed himself lipsynching to Scott’s “Aida” number, “Strongest Suit.” The hilarious and scary lesson here is don’t feed the freaks.

Scott’s gentle mockery of her own celebrity takes the edge off the inherent self-absorption of any solo (or quasi-solo) show. Much of the quest for knowledge of herself and the universe is built around advice from a sage old rabbi (“could have been a Muslim”) who told her to carry two pieces of paper — one that says “I am a speck of dust,” and another saying “The world was created for me.”

That dichotomy between insignificance and narcissism drives a search that’s both intimate and cosmic, the latter aspect echoed in Christine Jones’ set with its retro-looking science-textbook planetarium graphics. Scott brings her journey around to her family life today, elegantly avoiding most of the usual platitudes in her observations about luck and destiny, and about finding alternate expressions of religious feeling.

Back in the day, this kind of show might have blossomed in some downtown alternative-cabaret space, but most of those are now gone. Mayer and his creative team have slicked it up considerably to feel at home at a relatively uptown address, with an assist from lighting maestro Kevin Adams’ twinkling wonderland and music director Carmel Dean’s nightclubby five-piece combo. The polish does nothing to dim the show’s sincerity, freshness and wit. As both performer and personality, Scott is a strong-voiced original.

Everyday Rapture

Second Stage Theater; 296 seats; $75 top

Production: A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play with music in one act by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott. Directed by Michael Mayer. Musical director, Carmel Dean. Choreography, Michele Lynch.

Creative: Set, Christine Jones; costumes, Tom Broecker; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements, Tom Kitt; music coordinator, Michael Keller; production stage manager, Heather Cousens. Opened May 3, 2009. Reviewed April 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN

Cast: With: Sherie Rene Scott, Eamon Foley, Lindsay Mendez, Betsy Wolfe.

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