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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 03
Leave shaky Callers on hold
Arts & Entertainment
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Leave shaky Callers on hold

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Callers
Washington Ensemble Theatre
Through February 6


Musicals might be about the most difficult theatrical production to write. They are almost always more collaborative, with a 'book' writer (the script or story) and often a composer and a different person who writes lyrics. The music in a musical also performs a different function than a simple song. The songs in a musical are there to propel the story in ways that dialogue alone can't always accomplish; the songs express emotions that are often greater than dialogue can convey.

Washington Ensemble Theatre's latest creation is a musical, The Callers. With book and lyrics by Ella Dorband and Ali el-Gasseir and with music by Richard Andriessen, The Callers intrigues with the subject matter of phone sex hotlines and a hotline for people who want desperately to contact departed loved ones. The concept sounds like a hoot, and from the description, could be a spicy and very funny evening in theater.

Unfortunately, while there are aspects of interest, some with great execution, and some very competent performers, the whole doesn't add up to the promised effect. There are a few moments you might smile, and a few jokes. The physical environment created by set designer Andrea Bush is a fun and functional one for space, with dozens of telephones lining all the walls of the tiny theater, and a large open space for dancing or acting.

Some of the choreography by Markeith Wiley is deft and executed well by the ensemble. The musical accompaniment by cast members does nicely with few instruments. Lead character actor Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako as Bea is a compelling presence and has a beautiful voice. Extra-special ensemble player Carol Thompson is quirky and watchable and begs to be allowed more work center stage for us to see!

Ali el-Gasseir, as Viktor, strikes funny notes as the shyster character who plays on people's desire to talk to the dead. The rest of the cast is competent as an ensemble, and while no one has especially gifted singing voices, they acquit themselves well during the songs.

It turns out that The Callers is essentially a love story between Bea and her dead fiancée, Clark. Life since Clark's unexpected death has not been kind to Bea, and she has had to find a housemate, Emma (Kate Sumpter). The housemate has introduced her to a new way of earning money: phone sex. Some of the scripted lines about phone sex are very funny and sound educated on the topic.

Since Bea is still grieving, Emma suggests she call another hotline, one where a spirit medium named Viktor can talk to Clark for her. Bea becomes fixated on calling when another medium, Kevin (Richard Andriessen), fakes contacting Clark well enough that she wants to believe it's possible. Kevin then essentially falls in love with her, sight unseen, and obsessively contacts her. Aside from a twist at the end that doesn't fit with what's been established for Bea's character, not much else happens.

The music and lyrics are mostly not very inspiring. Nor are they memorable, or even remotely singable after the show is over. The play is a love story that does not add anything more interesting to the lexicon of love stories. If the story remained based on the same ideas, but the entire concept didn't take itself seriously - if it were all played entirely for bite and laughs - it could really have something worthwhile.

Finally, to call this production a 'world premiere,' rather than a developmental workshop, is questionable. Musicals often need all kinds of development, and having a full production with sets, costumes, and lights is a great way to find out what succeeds and fails in a play. Since the concept is on such shaky ground, they'd have been much better off giving it a more modest billing.

For more information, go to www.washingtonensemble.org or www.brownpapertickets.com, or call 800-838-3006.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com.

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