FG Preview: After a NY tryout, Hand2Mouth is ready for PDX

"Something's Got Ahold of My Heart" got a lot of love in New York

Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden and Maesie Speer in "Something's Got Ahold of My Heart"/ Lee Wexler

Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden and Maesie Speer in “Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart”/ Lee Wexler

By A.L. ADAMS

The New York contemporary theater scene does not suffer schmaltz gladly.

Nothing revealed this more plainly than my conversations with NY Times contributor Claudia La Rocco during her past visits to review TBA shows, in the course of which she dismissed several works (that had moved me) as obvious, played-out, over-sentimental and clichéd.

6727812097_c97a2f222eI’m inclined to understand this perspective as Broadway Backlash—a perfectly natural adaptation in a place where feel-good theater has become synonymous with tourist bait, and locals bemoan once-gritty Times Square for having become “Disneyfied.”

Enter Hand2Mouth Theatre’s “jukebox musical” “Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” an unabashedly sincere exploration of theater’s tiredest topic, LOVE, delivered in the oldest and most accessible living language, MUSIC. Eyeroll. Sigh.

Shockingly, against all odds, “Something”‘s inaugural run at New York’s LaMama proved stimulating and challenging enough to pass muster with jaded New York contemp-theater critics, even inspiring CultureFuture’s Guy Yedwab to confess his own romantic secrets before declaring the play “a genuine, heart-felt work with something to say, which uses good (and familiar) music, and at the end feels like the best party in theater.”

Having earned these grudging raves, “Something” is bound to blow the minds of easier-to-please Portlanders when it makes its full-length local debut, Thursday, Jan. 31, in Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont, at the Fertile Ground Festival, which opens today.

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Sentimental sucker that I am, I was sold on Hand2Mouth’s “Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” even before its completion, at last summer’s Risk/Reward festival workshop performance. Even in its infancy the piece showed promise, calling upon a cast of some of Portland’s most versatile actors (Erin Leddy, Matthew Dieckman) to weave a tapestry of heartfelt narrative threads together with outbursts of song, a la Leddy’s widely acclaimed 2011 solo work “My Mind is Like an Open Meadow.”

Though specific storylines and characters were a bit hard to parse (Wait—which one is the love interest and which one is her “friend?” Okay, wait, who is dying?), the work as a whole delivered raw, vulnerable emotions and complex romantic dilemmas, then crescendoed in a deceptively playful and palatable pop concert. I might add: to anyone familiar with the tech difficulties that tend to accompany live music, the cast’s seamless actor-to-musician transitions alone were a huge coup. H2M makes picking up and playing instruments mid-show, sans soundcheck, sans tuning, seem totally easy—and it’s not.

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Julie Hammond, Matthew Dieckman and Erin Leddy/ Lee Wexler

Julie Hammond, Matthew Dieckman and Erin Leddy/ Lee Wexler

In the vanguard of what promises to be a broader trend, “Something” preceded Action/Adventure’s sold-out “Fall of the Band” series, which also interspersed full-blown musician performance with theater. Collabs like this seem like the only natural evolution for a town with roughly one band per capita and a music scene that scrabbles for scraps. Mark my words: surplus musicians will continue to transform into double-threat thesps.

As it turns out, what I saw and loved last summer was roughly two thirds of the work—namely acts two and three: “stories” and “concert” respectively. Both sections have since been edited, and the latter even boasts two more songs than before (one original and one cover). The third element that Hand2Mouth has worked into the mix is an introductory section that the cast has nicknamed “greatest hits.” This bit leverages Leddy’s considerable charm as she winkingly feigns Frenchness and emcees audience-submitted dedications of classic hit songs. (It brings to mind a 2011 TBA-hosted Rude Mechs performance that asked audience members to write down inspirational figures in their lives, then later rolled the names as closing credits on an onstage screen. Ms. La Rocco didn’t love it, but I liked it all right.)

Thanks to a two-week residency at Experimental Media Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, NY, last fall, Hand2Mouth was able to introduce more refinements, including double-sided staging with dialed-in lights and sound. For costuming, the troupe was able to enlist Kate Fenker, whose prior creations have graced glamor-demanding clients like RuPaul and Gwen Stefani. “Expect high contrast and sparkles!” hints artistic director Jonathan Walters. (No doubt!)

In what promises to be a rich and eclectic Fertile Ground lineup, count on “Something” to be a standout—and also keep your ears open for the forthcoming album.

NOTES

“Someting’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” opens at 8 pm Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 17, Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont. Tickets are available through the company website.

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