Review: When We’re Gone

Van Hughes (John), left, and John Furey (Todd)                           Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
October 1, 2018

 How about making a musical tragedy set in an ancient time but with contemporary rock or hip-hop music? This formula has worked before, so Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is bringing us When We’re Gone, set in 1349 London during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. It’s hard to beat that for a tragedy.

Directed by Michael Baron, the show is the most recent production in Lyric’s exemplary program to première new musicals. With music by Scotty Arnold and book and lyrics by Alana Jacoby, the show reflects our own times as much as it does the 14th century. We’ve also had our plagues: AIDS, opioids.

The show concerns Todd, a teen musician who has taken it upon himself to doctor plague victims while trying to play in a band with his mates Ashton and Colin. (Todd, Ashton, Colin? These are 14th-century names? They are in this show.) Ashton replaced former band member John, a plague victim who haunts the show as narrator and the character Death. But playing in a band and ministering to the sick gets to be a bit much with bodies piling up outside the tavern where the lads play. Todd must make a choice between art and service.

Todd’s teen angst and conflicts with his father, William, are completely modern. Then, you have Rosie, the lad’s love interest. At one point in the second act, Todd laments he tried art, service, and love but remains unfulfilled. Welcome to the real world, Todd.

 The show is based in fact. The bubonic plague had appeared earlier in Europe and reached London in 1349. People didn’t understand what was happening. It took a while for them to realize fleas and rats carried Pasturella pestis, as it was identified much later. Some thought God was mad at humanity and dealing out punishment, while others claimed it was the work of the Evil One. The historian Barbara W. Tuchman has an excellent chapter on the subject in her A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

Although in an ancient setting, the show’s score ranges from hard rock to folk rock with a little Gregorian chant at the beginning. Who knew they had electric guitars in 1349? Or electricity? Jacoby’s lyrics are convincing and produce winces only a couple of times. Arnold powers it up with full-bore rock and slows it down with acoustic guitar. An acapella song by the father, William, is as surprising as it is beautiful. A seven-piece band led by James Dobinson accompanies the show with the usual rock instrumentation plus violin, mandolin, and cello.

Lyric is giving the show a top-notch production. Baron found actors to play the band members who are accomplished at guitar playing, rock singing, and acting. The only difference between these actors and rock musicians is that you can understand the lyrics the guys in this show are singing.

John Furey plays Todd, who is as conflicted as any character this side of Hamlet. Furey’s Todd literally defies Death, so good luck to him. As John/Death, Van Hughes gives the character an inevitability that could only be death (oh, yeah, and taxes). Derrick Medrano’s Ashton argues forcefully the art side of Todd’s decision between art and service. Antonio Rodriguez gives a solid performance as Colin, and Kat Metcalfe is equally strong as Rosie. Matthew Alvin Brown’s William tries to pray the plague away.  (In this day and age, one could ask why a show has five male roles to one female. As Baron noted in pre-performance remarks, the show has been nine years in the making—not unusual for a musical—so, in a way, it’s not of this day and age.)

Befitting the subject matter, the production’s design goes from dark to darker. Adam Koch’s scenic design consists of four rotating towers with many detailed elements that portray several settings, ranging from the tavern to the cathedral. Props include about a score of skulls. Helena Kuukka’s lighting design aims sometimes directly at the audience. Reflecting the overall design of the production, Jeffrey Meek’s costumes look 21st century but suggest vaguely 14th century.

Todd makes his choice between art and service. He has his reasons. Others may disagree with him. But Arnold and Jacoby have laden the show with a lot of dramatic weight. “The world’s a mess,” one character says near the end. How do the creators bring the show to a satisfying conclusion? I’m not sure they do. They seem to be saying let’s all stick together and maybe we’ll somehow, someway get through this. Here’s hoping.

When We’re Gone by Scotty Arnold (music) and Alana Jacoby (book and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p..m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through October 14
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
Tickets start at $25

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