— Production photo
Fighting Chance Productions is one of the most ambitious little companies in a theatre town that’s become full of ambitious—and very good—little companies. What sets Fighting Chance apart is that they do musicals, this year a full season of six. If that weren’t enough of a huge undertaking for a small, independent company without a theatre of its own, Fighting Chance artistic director Ryan Mooney decided to help develop and premiere in its season a new musical, Facing East.
The results are profoundly mixed.
Directed by Mooney with musical direction by Steven Greenfield and Clare Wyatt, the show revolves around Andrew (Jesse Alvarez), a young Mormon man who kills himself when his parents discover he’s gay. It begins in a cemetery with Andrew’s lover Marcus (Matt Montgomery) singing, “I skipped your funeral today in honour of your parents.” The backstory then unspools around Andrew’s relationship with his father Alex (Francis Boyle) and mother Ruth (Mandana Namazi). It’s a sadly familiar story with one very unusual twist.
The twist is that dad is the sympathetic parent. He adores his son, as he sings in one of the show’s best songs (Boyle is very good, singing near the top of his range), and though he is about to take a position with a right-wing evangelist, Alex has a great deal more respect for Andrew’s humanity than does Ruth, who tends toward the vicious and hysterical. Namazi has a lovely voice. But despite her Mormon faith, a song about her loveless marriage, and an awkward sub-plot about her husband’s once having had a girlfriend, Ruth’s behavior toward her son is hard to fathom.
Andrew wants to please everyone. He loves his parents and has tried to “cure” his homosexuality, spending all his time alone in his room with his cello to avoid the world’s temptations. But when old flame Marcus turns up in Salt Lake City, Andrew can’t hold out against his real feelings. Marcus—though he seems a little insensitive to Andrew’s obvious dilemma—clearly cares deeply for Andrew, too.
All this should set up some stirring musical moments in Facing East (the title references a Mormon belief about resurrection). But they are rare. The primary reason is the unmelodious score by David Rigano. The composition is never sweet nor especially powerful. Even when Marcus sings, “God loves me, and I am gay,” it’s not the big climactic knockout number it feels like it wants to be. And curiously, Andrew and Marcus sing together for only a few bars in the show, though both actors (Alvarez in particular) are in fine voice. I kept waiting for their duet.
Ironically, Facing East’s most compelling moments for me are found in its well-acted, intelligent dialogue (book and lyrics by Mark-Eugene Garcia). Turning dialogue into song, in this case, doesn’t intensify the emotional life of the characters, elevate their drama, elucidate their issues, or leave us humming their tunes.