OSF’s ‘Family Album’ is an experimental look at life choices

With an experimental play, it is a good thing to know what the experiment is. Having seen “Family Album,” by the musician/playwright known as Stew, I can’t say exactly what the experiment is, but it straddles the sensibilities of pop music and the theater.


The production that had its world premiere Saturday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre is a sprawling, uneven work described by the OSF as a play with music. The book and lyrics are by Stew with music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It was co-created and directed by Joanna Settle, who teaches theater at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.


Stew and Rodewald are the team responsible for the rock musical “Passing Strange,” which opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006, moved to off-Broadway and then Broadway and won Stew a Tony for Best Book.


Stew is a musician who formed a band called The Negro Problem in Los Angeles in the early ’90s. “Passing Strange” was semi-autobiographical, and “Family Album” has the feel of a work with some autobiographical riffs as well, and there is no question that Stew knows the music business.


The program states that the play’s runtime was unknown when the program was printed, probably not a good sign for a new play (it ran three hours but felt like four).


Heimvey (Luqman Brown) and his band have been on the road for a couple of decades and have little to show for it, although they once had a “sort of regional almost hit single.” But they’ve landed their biggest gig ever — opening for the Vomit Puppies, a group of 19-year-olds, at Madison Square Garden.


As long as they’re going to be in the neighborhood, they pop in on Cleo, (Miriam A. Laube) a one-time member of the band who left the business to marry Norman (Alex Emanuel), who told her he loved her more than music.


Norman used to supplement his income as swimming pool cleaner by selling Quaaludes and fake marijuana and is now a millionaire art dealer living with Cleo in a yuppie enclave called Park Slope. This is either a snarky comment on the big-money art world or a device to introduce the play’s main theme: artistic integrity versus the workaday world.


At this point the story abandons all linearity for an episodic, highly theatrical, rather surreal style somewhere between pastiche and parody. At Cleo’s, brunch doesn’t get served, it gets “performed.” Is her fabulous home, which in part replicates the furnishings of a dump she lived in with Heimvey, a piece of inspired installation by an artistic genius, or merely the conceit of a woman whose guitar is short a few strings?


Not to worry. The important thing is that the characters have now been assembled to argue about the merits and perils and pitfalls of their life choices. Is the path of a creative artist, say, a musician, a nobler path than that of somebody who settles down to raise a family?


This is a slim notion on which to hang a three-hour play with music, less a true conflict than a series of mere arguments in which characters represent points of view on middle-age angst. As we move in and out of dream and the present, much of the dialogue is sung, rapped or chanted in the style of performance or slam poetry, with the actors playing guitars, bass, drums, keyboard and a cello.


There are some genuinely funny lines, as when Cleo roars in a defiant rage, “This is my creation and I’m happy!”


“Black Men Ski” is a truly funny song, but it doesn’t advance the action of the play. It’s one of a number of elements that feel just sort of dropped in. Another is a bit about a gay Ken doll who isn’t interested in Barbie (“My name’s Ken, and I like men”), which had nothing to do with the play.


When Heimvey makes a big decision about the big gig, his explanation is received as a “brilliantly self-involved manifesto,” and the gang is moved to no less an enterprise than the re-invention of that venerable institution, the family. The new synthesis of home, art, love and money, to be known as Watering Hole Inc., is an instant magnet for the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Cornel West, Cokie Roberts.


With the exception of Cleo, whom Laube manages to breathe life into, the characters are thinly drawn, with little for the actors to get their teeth into. Andrew Lieberrman’s set is a clever melding of an artsy vibe with an industrial one.


The songs are mostly forgettable. For some reason (possibly parody?), most seemed to end with one of those monster drum flourishes favored by arena rockers.


It’s clear that Stew has thought deeply about life lessons, art, integrity and fame, but “Family Album” is like one of those old photo albums in which some of the shots leave an impression, but then there are all those fuzzy ones that make you wonder why they were included.


Read the full review at: http://www.mailtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140706/NEWS/407060312