A rock guitarist friend* once told me there are two ways to reach an audience: be a star, or be a black hole. A star emotes and explodes, releasing bursts of energy that can be seen and felt for miles, blasting the audience back against the walls. A black hole, in contrast, retreats so completely into itself that everything around it is pulled closer to its ever-deepening, ever-contracting center. A black hole sucks the air out of a room and draws the audience inside it.
Drugs offer a similar dichotomy: stimulants explode, opiates implode. Love, too, can push or pull. These are the dynamics the members of the band Blitzen Trapper has been playing with in their first musical Wild and Reckless—and the more masterfully they manipulate those polarities, the more electric it’s gonna get.
A new musical by a local band is an atypical risk for Portland Center Stage, but Blitzen Trapper had some unique selling points: They’re tight-knit, long-term creative collaborators who started out in Salem, making them especially appropriate for PCS’s Northwest Stories series. They’ve long since transcended the Portland music scene and maintained more widespread fame as a touring band, drummer Brian Koch has already been active in Portland theater, singer/songwriter Eric Earley has penned some novels, and the band had a well-connected friend, theater-creator-about-town Liam Kaas-Lentz, who helped plead their case to PCS and now co-directs their show with Rose Riordan.
Among local bands, Blitzen Trapper’s rise has seemed charmed, even destined. As far back as I remember, they’ve been on the short list of winners. In 2004, the inaugural year of PDX Pop, they contributed a track to the local nonprofit’s “comp” (a compilation CD with almost 40 tracks by various local acts, myself included.) At the same time, mainstream corporate local radio station KNRK had just come through a firestorm with a shock-jock who went too far and was re-evaluating its entire artistic vision, running desperate “What should we play?” PSA’s. I gave the comp to an associate from the station, and they immediately chose five bands to put on the station in its typical heavy rotation: M. Ward, The Thermals, Viva Voce, The Decemberists, and Blitzen Trapper. Those bands’ instant popularity seemed to spearhead a renaissance in local radio playing local bands, and over the next decade, Portland’s reputation as a “music city” grew and grew, to the nearly absurd point where local folk musicians were performing our healthcare registration and tourism commercials, portraits of musicians hung in the mayor’s office, and the city’s “hold” musak was replaced with all local alt-rock. Blitzen Trapper is (in my memory, anyway) baked in with all of that. And though that groundswell has arguably crested, the members of that “graduating class” became lifelong professional musicians. But I digress.
The concept of Wild and Reckless, in brief: In the (future? past? other dimension?), lightning is the new green energy. Hooray! But the byproduct of its harvest, “lightning dust,” is a deadly new drug. Shoot. A homeless boy falls in love with a down-on-her-luck girl who turns out to be a lightning dust junkie, and he pursues her through a gritty Van-Santian scenic landscape. No spoilers, but you might imagine it culminating in tragedy.
The story is narrated by “The Narrator,” Blitzen Trapper lead singer/songwriter Eric Earley; “The Scientist,” drummer Brian Koch; “The Dealer,” Leif Norby, an actor sitting in with the band; and “The Professor,” keyboardist Marty Marquis. Other characters who don’t narrate include “The Girl,” played by Laura Carbonell, another actor/musician sitting in; and “The Kid,” played by guitarist Erik Menteer. Blitzen bassist Michael Van Pelt plays instruments onstage, but no role.
Another aside: This genre seems to be growing, of rock musicals that use music written by rock bands rather than songbooks penned for a production by musical theater composers. Bio-musicals like Jersey Boys and One Night with Janis Joplin revisit musicians’ life stories using the music they created; musicals like Mama Mia and Movin’ Out raid the preexisting greatest hits catalogs of pop stars for catchy tunes to accompany fictitious new stories. Then there’s the model of Green Day’s American Idiot, which builds a story around the tunes from a single album that were already meant to thematically cohere, and David Byrne’s new musical Saint Joan, with songs and performance about the life of Joan of Arc. In these instances, rock musicians aren’t merely signing off licensing rights to their catchiest numbers piecemeal; they’re taking a page from The Who’s and Pink Floyd’s playbook, investing time, songcraft, and their vision for one particular album directly into a musical theater project.
And that’s also what we have in Blitzen Trapper’s Wild and Reckless. The songs are the band’s; the story (albeit fiction) is theirs, told their way; their picture is on the billboard and they stand and deliver onstage. Where musicals too often indulge cheeseball pantomimes of instrument-playing (ahem, axe scene in Lizzie); this is actually real rocking out, complete with psychedelic, pedal-heavy spaceouts, shredding guitar solos, and spine-tingling harmonies of quiet, distant “oohs.” The performance of these pieces demands all the coordination and concentration that might otherwise be devoted to choreography, so the band’s movement is pretty minimal. When you’re really doing it, you don’t have to act like you’re doing it quite so hard.
The song lyrics in Wild and Reckless don’t explicitly tell the same story as the show (often a distinguishing difference between Broadway and band songwriting). Nothing is sung specifically about lightning drugs, or which characters are doing what with whom—that information is spoken, and chiefly by Earley, while what’s sung are the broader poetries of atmosphere: the romance and mystery of the open road, the volatility of love, the chaos of nature, the confrontation of one’s fate.
Speaking of atmosphere, scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has brilliantly handled a doubly challenging setup. Wild and Reckless is in rep with Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, meaning both sets need to be capable of a quick change. Furthermore, with a fully operational rock band come yards of what sound techs call “spaghetti,” the often unsightly cables that connect the gear, not to mention the conspicuous gear itself. Rather than tucking cords away, Wickersheimer has formed them into a tangle of storm-tossed wreckage with broken street lights that wink ominously and rope lights that flash like spikes of lightning. The space is deep-set like a tunnel, with screens on the sides projecting*** black and white video of the city and countryscapes that the narration suggests. Also suggested, of course, is metaphorical depth—deep thoughts and deep sorrows.
The projections by Jared Mezzocchi, though relegated to the background, may be pretty excellent in their own right; the artist is a Princess Grace Award recipient. Daniel Meeker’s lighting is also inspired, giving a strong sense of movement despite the plugged-in players being unable to venture far. Casi Pacilio’s sound design is flawless and deft; however, it could cite rock standards over theater protocols and get a bit louder.
I’m always baffled that there isn’t more fluidity among art scenes, especially between bands and musical theater performers. But when Blitzen Trapper is in the Armory, you can really feel the audience responding with an alien fascination for “rock stars” that they wouldn’t typically grant to actors, even so-called “triple threats.” Hence, the two cast members who hail from musical theater and therefore make more of a visible effort, conjure significantly less mystique. Laura Carbonell, “The Girl,” who sits in on some instruments and sings some romantic duets with Earley but doesn’t really get to talk (Paging Dr. Bechdel, stat! But I digress), beams her Broadway background into every filament of her stage presence, from her squared-up posture to her Colgate smile.** If she’d only throw a shoulder or a gesture askew or seem, for even a second, depressed or desperate (as real junkies always do)! Perhaps unfairly, Carbonell’s work was cut out for her by another actor who read the role at JAW with a laconic affectation that may have been less charming, but was realer for the role. The other pro, PCS mainstay and dashing midcareer actor Leif Norby, doesn’t nail his part, either. His “The Dealer,” a two-dimensional bad guy with an affectedly gravelly voice and an effortful hunch, feels less like a denizen of society’s dark side than a nervous undercover cop trying to close a deal without getting caught.
In contrast, shockingly, it’s the band whose acting can be believed. Earley, being and playing a sympathetic small-town boy trying to survive in the city, mumbles his lines humbly as if through a chunk of tobacco. Marty Marquis as professor is equally understated and genuine, talking to his class and telling us what we need to know. Menteer as “The Boy” lets apt casting speak for itself; he has a solo song but (few? no?) lines, and he looks the necessary part: an Angel Face type, scruffy, lanky, and lost. As the show goes on, the incongruities between the understated band members and the overexuberant actors begin to grate. It’s easy enough to believe Carbonell as a girl who attracted a boy, but nearly impossible to see her as a troubled junkie. And Norby could pass for a drug dealer better in a world where the gangs are Jets and Sharks than in this grittier millieu. The Girl and The Dealer are all sparkle and no black hole. Koch as The Scientist is the crossover artist, and per his M.O., he plays it a little edgy and a bit kitschy (Portlandia, Mr. Burns—A Post-Electric Play and Manos: The Hand of Fate are some cult-famous pieces that pepper his resume), and you might say a little bit manic…
…which brings me reluctantly to wonder: Guys. Which drug are we doing?
I realize “lightning dust” is a fictitious drug, but it seems to have several properties that real-life drugs also possess. You shoot it up. It immobilizes you and spaces you out. It’s highly addictive, and (in a metaphorical twist) those who’ve used it once attract more and more of its energy into their orbit over time. So it’s heroin, yes? If the storyline and Earley and Menteer are your guide, then yes, it’d have to be heroin. But follow Koch’s lead, and it could be coke, or meth, or any kind of speed. Norby’s gravelly timbre suggests the drug is smokable, and his demeanor ranges from Lebowski, suggesting pot, to aggro posturing (PCP?). If you watch Carbonell’s character, who partakes the most, the drug might be as mild as Lunesta: a knockout narcotic with a bright-eyed wakeup unless you take way too much. Resolving the “which drug” conundrum is some needed dramaturgy that it’s not too late to apply. It might make the difference between whether this show merely dazzles locally with rock star power, or whether it reverberates further with an injection of authenticity and drug-culture cred. (Where’s D.C. Copeland when needed? In New York, I guess.)
In summary, what was workshopped at JAW has since spun out into a raw, rocking and engaging evening, and yet the character notes could still use more fine-tuning. It’s the difference between heads bobbing and hearts breaking.
* Gene “Pool” Hall, guitarist for The Pinehurst Kids, a Portland band roughly contemporary to Blitzen Trapper, expounded this theory to me. I’m not sure if it was original or sourced from elsewhere.
** In defense of Carbonell’s cheery, charming junkie you could cite the following precedent: Glee‘s Corey Monteith, who real-life died of an overdose despite his deep-dimpled, wholesome Broadway singer persona. But Monteith both was and played a showtune singer, then moonlit with drugs. If “The Girl” character was supposed to be a Broadway Girl Gone Bad, rather than a Diamond in a Dive Bar, that would work.
Portland Center Stage’s Wild and Reckless continues through April 30 in the Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.