Actress Kylie Brown has a voice that booms out of her tiny body with shocking depth and force, assaulting your senses. She plays multiple roles with galvanizing verve — the femme fatale, the wronged wife, the blissed-out actress and the adulterous vamp — in Actor’s Express’ “See What I Wanna See,” Michael John LaChiusa’s adaptation of Japanese short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, running through April 16.
Originally produced at New York’s Public Theater when the wounds of September 11 were still raw, the play may have lost some of its immediate emotional resonance as we’ve retreated from that horrific, life-transforming event. But the musical, directed by Melissa Foulger, still has an internal power of its own as an examination, in the first act, of the divided nature of the human animal and his/her ability to do bad things, paired with its redemptive second act, about the human urge for meaning and faith even under the most dire circumstances. The two acts are united, too, by the characters’ desires to shape reality to their wishes — a pretty neat metaphor for the function of stage dramas, it turns out. (Photos courtesy of Offhand Photography.)
The musical opens in medieval Japan with Brown as Kesa, offering up some pretty bawdy talk for a gal wearing a kimono. Kesa is a Japanese temptress who belts out a randy salute to adultery and her lover Morito’s (Stuart Schleuse) below-the-belt gifts. That saucy-mixed-with-homicidal opening sets the tone for a murder story that unfolds in New York City in 1951, involving a well-to-do businessman (Schleuse again, playing a cocky chump whose self-involved prissiness is telegraphed in his ridiculously complicated martini order), his former hat check girl and showpiece wife (Brown) and the memorable greaser Thief (Dustin Lewis), a kind of nightmare version of Fonzie, whose sexual urges unleash dark forces. “What’s real for me ain’t real for everyone,” he offers, the linchpin of the first act’s scrambled moral compass.
The Thief takes an unhealthy shine to femme fatale Brown and devises a plan to rape her by luring her husband to Central Park with the promise of a gangster’s fortune hidden in its verdant depths. Writer Akutagawa’s short story “In the Grove” was also the basis for the Akira Kurosawa 1950 art house classic “Rashomon,” which examined a crime from three subjective vantage points. Complicating that whodunit and who-dun-what are a janitor (Craig Waldrip) who witnessed the park attack and a delicious Ingrid Cole as a medium in turban, gaudy costume jewelry and a New York twang, who channels the voice of dead husband Schleuse. With her close-to-the-body, mincing gestures and gum-smacking campiness, Cole adds some needed levity to the contrapuntal force of the Thief, whose crotch-grabbing, head-swimming lust sets off the blood and wrath of the musical’s first act.
The moral morass of that Central Park rape and murder — who murdered whom? was it rape or off-the-leash lust? — dissolves into a purer, brighter New York of 2002, featuring another standout performance by Cole as a warm and fuzzy Italian auntie who can’t help but offer her priest nephew (Lewis) home cooking even as she rails against religion as the opiate of the masses. (Cole seems to grow three inches in the second act, from her pint-sized medium to the force-to-be-reckoned-with uberwoman.) Fatigued by the endless tales of loss following September 11, the priest grapples with his faith in the less satisfying second act. Lewis is simply better — grittier and more vivid — as the bad boy than as the good boy. The priest inadvertently sets off a mass gesture of belief when he posts a sign advertising a visit from Jesus in Central Park.
As a musical, “See What I Wanna See” tends to do best in uptempo mode, in racy, funny, deceit-laced 1950s-jazz-inflected numbers such as “Big Money,” “No More” and the comical, provocative thumbed nose to religion in Aunt Monica’s “The Greatest Practical Joke.” “Religion is tyranny” she sing-songs, followed by “You want some manicot?”
The show benefits from a minimalist stage design that allows the real set dressing — lust, greed, rage, envy and doubt — to come through, backed by a live three-man band featuring saxophone, drums, piano, flute and clarinet.
In sum, “See What I Wanna See” delivers on the promise of the genre of the musical — to offer transportive, floating-above-it-all escapism — bolstered by the conceptual edge of this particular 21st-century variant on the form.