Mental the Musical
Edgemar Center for the Arts
A musical about a dysfunctional family gathering for a weekend of supervised soul searching at a private mental health facility located somewhere deep in the Arizona desert, the place where their manic depressive suicidal daughter is incarcerated? Sounds cheery, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, Fiona Hogan and Courtney Kramer’s Mental the Musical, now playing at the Edgemar Center, offers more laughs than you’d expect.
Of course, considering this is a musical featuring a song called “Kiss My Ass,” the characters have been given the unlikely last name Clutterbuck, and we’re reminded “each of us is unique, just like everyone else,” one would hardly expect Arthur Miller here in the first place. But be forewarned as, again surprisingly, by the final song you might be watching the argumentative Clutterbucks resolving their long repressed differences through a mist of your own tears.
Mental has a lot going for it, from its distinctive premise to some wonderful performances, although it must be said that it’s still something of a work in progress. Changes were made to the script after the critical response on opening weekend was hardly congratulatory, the producers politely asking this reviewer to skip a week before coming to see the newly revamped version.
I don’t know what exactly is different from when that first performance received its most dastardly notices, but one participant told me it’s “been a very interesting process… like a workshop that opened to a large audience.” I understand some songs were tweaked and sped up, one new number was added to “help remind the audience they’re watching a musical and not a drama with music,” lyrics were changed to offer better character delineation and, my most gracious mole told me, the best part of all was that the creators and director Michelle Danner “really did tailor the show to every actor’s individual strengths.”
Whatever was done to make this play more Mental, it worked as far as I’m concerned and hopefully more will be done to improve it. Anyone donning the skin of Hogan and Kramer’s angry and silently desperate characters could easily get lost in stereotypical behavior and a couple of these earnest actors occasionally do just that—although the results are not entirely their fault. There are also memorable solo turns offered at some point in the performance by almost everyone depicted here, which makes one understand why these folks are pleased to be part of this project.
Musical theatre veteran Eileen Barnett has some touching moments as Eloise, the hypochondriac matriarch of the Clutterbuck clan, none more impressive than when belting her evocative solo “A Different Kind of Love,” and Ryan Matthew, although initially slightly grating as too-too gay novice therapist Dr. Gary, redeems himself splendidly with the energetic “No More Dairy” and later shows more genuine colors when his character gets a chance to put his light little loafers back down on terra firma.
Miranda Frigon is a standout as Pine Meadows’ resident patient and the Clutterucks woebegone daughter Mona, her showstopping “Above Ground” giving her a chance to shine, and Adam Simmons shows off a dynamic tenor as the sweetly stupid visiting supermodel boyfriend of the other Clutterbuck sister Violet (played by co-creator Kramer), the type of vapid guy who assumes “they were looking for the more mature wrinkled look” when he loses the newest D&G campaign to Brad Pitt. Simmons is hilarious baring his gym-bunny physique while giving equal quality time to flexing his character’s teenytiny IQ, proving himself to be an actor obviously willing to poke fun at himself at every opportunity.
The most arresting performance in Mental the Musical, however, comes from John Bobeck as Sport, the neglected ne’er-do-well skibum Clutterbuck son living a vagabond lifestyle in Colorado. There’s something incredibly honest and open about this completely understated performance that makes Bobeck all the more watchable as he continuously honors the concept of “ensemble” acting. Where some of his costars tend to be staring blankly at the back of other family members’ heads as their stories are explored in song or monologue, Bobeck’s Sport is right there with each one at every moment, every revelation about his family’s struggle to understand one another clearly apparent on his mobile face.
And when Bobeck is featured in the poignant, heartfelt ballad “See Me,” it’s the highlight of the evening, a turn that should make Hogan and Kramer consider in their next retooling to craft an even more dynamic solo number able to show off this triple-threat performer’s as yet untapped musical abilities—though methinks it’s only a matter of time regardless before his career takes off at lightspeed.
The hardest thing about staging Mental the Musical is the static nature of the piece, naturally hampered by its setting, with a line of plastic chairs placed around the stage in a semicircle to proximate a group therapy session. This doesn’t give director Danner much room to create inventive stage pictures, something exacerbated by an interesting, literate, but somewhat repetitious score performed here by prerecorded canned musicians.
Here’s a thought next time around: cast only actors who play instruments themselves, leaving the remaining Clutterbucks to accompany their own relatives, something akin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets the Von Trapp Family at the Cabaret.
Whatever its evolving nature, this is undoubtedly a highly worthy musical endeavor filled with heart and pluck and an incredible amount of talent. Put Mental the Musical on your list of Don’t Miss-es—you might be amazed at what you learn about yourself and your own presumably screwed up family. I mean, aren’t they all? Wish we could all sing our way to health and familial understanding this easily.
Mental the Musical plays through Aug. 26 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; for tickets, call 310.392.7327.