Teens in heat: ‘Ablaze’ lights up the stage

Matthew Zrebski's musical thriller is like a YA novel in the flesh

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

“Ablaze” has been doing a slow burn since 2004, when playwright and director Matthew B. Zrebski began gathering ideas for a new show from students at Lincoln High School. “The idea was to create a high-tension, terrifying situation – and in doing so, to lift the veil from difficult subject matter,” Zrebski writes in his production notes for the play’s most recent and perhaps ultimate incarnation, which attaches the words “an a cappella musical thriller” below the title.

The subtitle isn’t kidding. Other than a bit of percussive sound here and there, the entire play is sung in pop-operatic style, without instrumental accompaniment, by 24 young performers. Everything’s either song or recitative, except for some short and welcome breaks of spoken dialogue from the four actors playing “The Watchers,” a sort of high-school Greek chorus that frets over the play’s frenetic action. The original production wasn’t a musical. “Ablaze” became one later on, in a further development workshop with students from Wilson High School (some of them are in the current cast). Now, after a run in last year’s Fertile Grounds new-works festival that generated a lot of buzz, it’s reached the stage of the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, where Zrebski and the musical-theater production company Staged! have brought things to a spectacular boil. The kids in the cast – most are in high school; the oldest is a recent college grad ­– have the vocal chops, and they move like a single leaping flame through choreographer Jessica Wallenfel’s vivid and complex movement patterns. (The 12-member dance team, costumed in flame-like appendages, is referred to simply as “The Fire.”) Whatever you think of the music or plot, you might not see a more earnest and committed show all season.

But what’s “Ablaze” about? In the end, it seems more about a feeling, an intense group emotional passage, than anything particularly narrative, and that’s why turning it into an extended musical work makes good sense. “Ablaze” is more mood than story. A group of high-school kids is lured to the abandoned grounds of an old school, where somehow they’re trapped in the smoldering underground and held hostage for 19 days. Who’s holding them and watching them? Why? The answers burst out eventually, if a little confusingly, but they really aren’t the point. A little like the station in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” the hidey hole in “Ablaze” exists mainly as a psychological and emotional testing ground for the people stuck there. If Inge’s sensitive American realism is amped up in “Ablaze” with a heavy dose of modern horror-movie paranoia – well, this is a play about teens and their hopes and fears, after all.

Watching and listening to this fresh-scrubbed production, it struck me that Zrebski has created a musical-theater version of a YA novel, and that could be a good thing: right now the young-adult market is the hottest thing on literary wheels. YA is where traditional kids-lit falls away and the urgent pump of estrogen and testosterone takes over. A lot of YA books read, almost literally, like a fever, and that’s what Zrebski’s injected into “Ablaze.” There’s the nominal thriller-mystery. Beyond that, there are urgent teen issues ranging from pregnancy to popularity to geekiness to being gay.

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of through-sung musicals – I prefer a little breathing space, and a little interplay between plot and music – but these days they’re the way of the musical-theater world. To my mind it’s a rare pop score that can manage the weight and sophistication that allows opera to be sung through successfully, and besides, good dialogue can provide both cleverness and insight to a play. Something gets lost when everything’s told through music, especially when overamplification so often drowns out the lyrics that are supposed to be telling the tale. Partly because there is no band, that’s not a problem in “Ablaze.” Zrebski’s lyrics can sometimes feel a little forced, as if they’re searching desperately for the right rhyme and not quite finding it, but they come across crisply and clearly, and in the main they do the job well. And his songs have a nice pop lyricism and a natural-sounding way with a hook: this is a legitimate musical-theater score. Musical director Eric Nordin has done an excellent job of keeping all of it focused and pushing forward.

It’s a little tough to pick standouts in what’s truly an ensemble show, but Christopher James as sensitive Saul, Jessica Tidd as tough Tess, Austin Mahar as Chaz, and Charlotte Karlsen as Cassie do a fair amount of burning. “Ablaze” isn’t really meant for me, and may or may not be meant for you, and that’s perfectly all right. It’s not a grown-up play: that is, it lacks subtlety and analytic detachment. But that can just as easily be an advantage for an audience looking to immerse itself in pure feeling. “Ablaze” obviously connects deeply – enthrallingly, on the evidence of the night I saw it – with its intended audience, which experienced something fresh and personal and appealing. I tip my geezerly hat to that.

NOTES:

  • “Ablaze” continues Thursdays-Sundays through May 5 in the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Ticket information here.
  • Kaitie Todd’s review for Willamette Week is here.
  • Holly Johnson’s review for The Oregonian is here.

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