Sleeping Beauty Wakes
La Jolla Playhouse
What a timely and clever musical emanating from the ever intriguing La Jolla Playhouse. With the ongoing reports that modern society is sleeping less (and far less soundly) combined with the growing research about the purpose and value of sleep, this new musical layers in the fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm to startling effect.
The play opens as four sleep disorder patients are checking into a clinic, hoping for a cure. The Doctor (played with aplomb by Kecia Lewis-Evans) responds to their plaintive “Can You Cure Me” with a dose of reality. She is an overworked physician, unlikely to provide much insight. The Orderly (Bryce Ryness, with one of the two most challenging roles of the evening) suffers from his own illnesses. It seems he collapses when overcome with emotion. As such, when a beautiful sleeping lass is brought in by her father, the Orderly flounders while trying to help. The father, claiming his daughter has been asleep for 900 years, is assumed to be off his rocker, but the stage is set.
And a crisply effective stage it is. Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez subtly deploys rear screen projection to alternately display the patients’ EKG readings, the night sky and imagery evocative of the lyrics. Valerie Vigoda provides lyrics to Brendan Milburn’s music, moving the plot forward with smooth exposition where needed. The book, by Rachel Sheinkin, cleverly interweaves the fairy tale with the Orderly’s growing fondness for Rose, the drowsy daughter.
During the course of the evening, I was reminded of three worthy touchpoints. “Inception” because of the film’s investigation into the power of sleep and suggestion, “Wicked” because of the automatic reliance on the audience’s intimacy with the backstory and “Tommy” because of Townshend’s search for a cure amidst a rock opera score. (The latter production had its launch at La Jolla Playhouse, and after seeing its success there I like many others was not surprised when it reached global acclaim).
Easily the strongest voice in “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” is that of Bob Stillman, who plays the King and father. Stillman’s rich vocals move fluidly through a range of emotions, mostly yearning and eventually fulfillment. Stillman cites his influences as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Cole Porter and James Taylor. It is Taylor’s voice that is the easiest comparison, but Stillman’s vocals are richer in timbre. Until we get a cast recording, you can hear Stillman’s vocal work on his great CD of original songs (www.BobStillman.com). Stillman told me that his delight in playing the role of the King is the arc of the character, the plot requires him to let go of a belief he has held for centuries. Indeed, his is the other challenging role of the evening, a part Stillman fulfills most admirably.
The accomplished five man band in the pit of “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” provide superb accompaniment, through a series of song stylings. Given that many of the characters sing while ostensibly asleep, the play easily wins the award for most songs performed while supine. As Rose and the Orderly begin to connect (via a very clever plot device for this charming prince to deliver his wake up kiss), they move into a powerful duet called “(You Make Me Feel) Awake.” When the shuffling Doctor becomes her powerful alter ego, she looks like a cross between Nona Hendryx (of Labelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ fame) and the Acid Queen from “Tommy.”
“Sleeping Beauty Wakes” also poignantly deals with the love between a dad and a daughter, and the tug a parent feels when his child is growing wings. This is a thoroughly impressive production, and it kept me awake and thinking that evening when I tried to fall asleep. I expect it will continue to do so beyond its launch at La Jolla Playhouse.