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PTC’s ‘Tell Me on a Sunday’ a spectacular solo show

January 12, 2022
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PTC’s ‘Tell Me on a Sunday’ a spectacular solo show (photo courtesy Penobscot Theatre Company/Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – There are few tasks more difficult for a performer to execute than holding a stage solo. To be up there under the lights all by yourself – it’s a staggering responsibility. It demands a combination of presence and willpower that requires massive effort to generate and even more effort to maintain. To do this for even a few minutes is an incredible and admirable feat.

Now imagine doing it for an entire show.

That’s what Brianne Beck is doing in “Tell Me on a Sunday,” the latest production from Penobscot Theatre Company. Directed and choreographed by Dominick Varney, this show – with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black – is a one-woman tour de force, a story of ambition and disappointment, both personal and professional. The show runs through January 23 at the Bangor Opera House.

This one-act show is a non-stop musical experience, with Beck vocally carrying the story forward with the help of a three-piece band (one that includes musical director David Madore on keyboards). It’s a story both sweet and sad, one told beautifully through song.

Beck plays our unnamed narrator, a young woman from the United Kingdom with stars in her eyes. She’s living in New York City, looking for love and seeking a performing career. Even when times are tough, she strives to keep her heart open – she doesn’t want to become hardened or bitter. And when she meets a gentleman named Sheldon Bloom – a film producer – she thinks that her ship has finally come in. At Sheldon’s invitation, she makes her way west to Hollywood.

It … doesn’t go well.

The girl makes the rounds of auditions, trying to make her way into show business. It becomes abundantly clear that Sheldon was perhaps a bit deceptive with regard to the sort of relationship he was willing to have with her. Her auditions do not bear fruit and, as she realizes that she’s little more than a trophy, she decides to make her way back to New York City.

On her return, she continues to look for love as she awaits approval for a green card. She winds up in some questionable relationships – there’s a man whose “business trips” turn out to be dalliances with other women and another married paramour whose decision to leave his wife for her horrifies the girl. She pulls the plug on that relationship and vows to go back to the idealism that powered her initial arrival in NYC.

Throughout, the girl engages in conversations with friends and correspondence with her mother, but the only person we see onstage is her.

This story is told almost exclusively through song. There are a handful of spoken lines of dialogue, but they are few and far between. Everything unfolds through the sonic lens of music – narrative beats, character developments, the whole shebang. It’s a lovely, lonely song cycle, the measure of a year made through the measures of these songs.

“Tell Me on a Sunday” is not the typical fare that we get from Penobscot Theatre Company. Sure, it’s a musical, but it is not the sort of large, lavish production we so often see on the PTC stage. Instead, it is an intimate and emotionally fraught piece, a rapid-fire musical journey through a year in the life of a woman who is continually searching for something that she can neither find nor define.

Brianne Beck’s talents have been crying out for a showcase such as this one. She has long been one of the most talented performers that this area has to offer. And she has fully embraced the massive challenge that an undertaking such as this one presents.

As I said at the top, going it alone on stage is really hard, even for just a few minutes. To do it for such an extended period – and to do it with nary a moment of flagging energy – is impressive as hell. Not a surprise, per se – anyone who has watched her work over the years knows she’s got the talent and the fortitude – but definitely impressive. Oh, and just for the record – getting up there and belting your way through a dozen Andrew Lloyd Webber songs is no joke. Again, not a surprise, but it sure is a great feeling to watch her do it.

Varney’s direction and choreography help shape the space that Beck occupies, keeping her in constant motion, but always with purpose. That massive stage could easily have swallowed up a solo performer, but the combination of Beck’s big voice and bigger energy with Varney’s clear understanding of the kinetic necessities of the piece shrink the space to form-fit Beck’s considerable presence.

Of course, no singer sings alone. The onstage trio – cellist Marisa Solomon, drummer Harry Burns and pianist (and musical director) David Madore – provides a musical backbone to Beck’s vocals. You might not think three musicians could produce such a robust sound, but they are a tight and talented group.

Musical highlights include “Let Me Finish,” “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad” and the titular tune, but your mileage may vary – there are no bad songs here.

The production values are excellent. Big surprise, I know. Shows like this – pieces that require both delineated playing spaces and open flexibility – necessitate a strong collaborative vibe shared by the designers. Tricia Hobbs and Scout Hough – scenic and lighting design, respectively – have such a vibe. Hobbs has crafted a number of lovely playing areas, backed by a beautifully stylized NYC backdrop, while Hough once more displays a preternatural sense for using light and shadow to create disparate spaces. The two are a great team. Oh, and Kevin Koski has assembled one hell of a costume track, finding a variety of looks that are also relatively easy for Beck to change in and out of. Add Neil Graham’s sound design to the mix and you’re really cooking with gas.

“Tell Me on a Sunday” is perhaps an unconventional choice for PTC, but there is no denying the quality of the experience, anchored by an incandescent star turn by one of our region’s finest performers. In all the ways that matter, this is the Brianne Beck Show … and we’re lucky we get to see it.

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 08:49

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