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A CurtainUp Review
The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale
Such is the case with the latest Ars Nova/PlayCo collaboration, The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale. It's not as innovative as it thinks it is, but it's very well-written, acted, and directed, and it's quintessentially New York. It's also a very, very good show.
The Wildness. . . is the brainchild of husband/wife team Kyle Jarrow and Lauren Worsham, the former the composer and co-librettist with the latter. Both already come with serious credentials, having won Obie and Drama Desk awards and Tony award nominations. Together they anchor the glam-rock-punk band Sky-Pony, which has been surprising and delighting New York audiences with elaborately theatrical performances for some time. In fact, the whole show is basically the entire Sky-Pony band plus one (Spring Awakening and Wicked veteran Lilli Cooper), which may explain its greatest strengths. The chemistry among the performers is obvious and their execution essentially flawless — despite difficult staging on a runway style stage that bisects the enthusiastic audience, complex music and a fairly involved plot.
The show is a frame story: a group of millennials gathers once a year to drink, repeatedly commiserate, and "overshare" with previously chosen audience members known as the "Brave Ones" and other similarly disaffected people. Over time the gatherings have become performances of a "fairy tale" about a group of isolated villagers kept in their village by fear of the forest outside (The Wildness) and prophecies presented by their leader. One day his daughter Ada defies the order never to explore The Wildness and, accompanied by her handmaiden Zira (played by both fictional and real life Lauren), discovers a fateful secret.
The story, set to music performed by the Sky-Pony band members placed in various spots in the theater, plays out in a series of parts. These are repeatedly broken up by self-referential comments from the performers (Worsham, pregnant in real life with the couple's first child, ties this fact into the show itself) and interactions with the audience (who at various times are asked to blindfold themselves, eat candy along with the performers, engage in various call-and-response rituals and the like).
Not surprisingly, the lines between the "show" and the performers who are waiting for show creator Michael to appear become increasingly blurred as the action proceeds. After a while we're watching both the actors and the themes they represent blend.
When the unusual, pop-friendly and self-aware music gets added to the mix, the whole thing feels vaguely like Spring Awakening meets A Chorus Line and Rent by way of Tim Burton. There's a lot to take in here, and as even one of the characters admits, young people casting about for meaning is hardly a new or particularly scintillating concept, so by all rights The Wildness ought to seem pretentious as hell. Yet the production works, sometimes spectacularly well, because it's so well-executed.
Jarrow's music is by turns thoughtful, funny, and powerful. The harmonies rendered by the performers are beautiful and dissonant in just the right spots. And the cast is equally good on the acting side — particularly Cooper, whose rendering of both the fairy tale Ada and the actress who plays her is pitch-perfect, and Worsham, who is absolutely exquisite here.
Sam Buntrock directs with a confident hand. Set, costumes, and sound are all well-conceived. However, I would renew a previously expressed wish that small venues like this one would not amplify already loud music since it's completely unnecessary. . . and often painful!
Which brings me to back to New York. As I watched the performance of this really excellent show, I tried to imagine where it would fit in a larger setting. I don't know whether the intimate energy among the performers and audience members of The Wildness would work in a Broadway theater. But upon reflection, I've decided I don't care; it should work in any venue, and should be seen by a lot more people. The Wildness: Sky-Pony's Rock Fairy Tale is smart, thoughtful, and exceedingly well-execute and it ought to be on the short list for a lot of awards this season. If you care about live musical theater — and in particular, live musical theater which only New York can deliver — go see this, as soon as you can.