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Odd and impervious to easy explication, The Landing, which runs at Deep Dish Theater through November 22, has been described as “a chamber musical” and as “a triptych” – not a word one often thinks to use for a theatrical performance. In this 2013 show, with music by the famed John Kander (Cabaret; Chicago) and book and lyrics by Greg Pierce (Kander’s long-time collaborator Fred Ebb died in 2004), four actors play three extended scenes. These are not acts in a three-act play with a single narrative arc; each story involves different characters in different settings. But all are connected with conceptual hinges delicately wrought from the damascene steel of longing, love, and loss.
Directed here by Paul Frellick, The Landing is one of the best shows I’ve seen at Deep Dish, now in its 14th year.
To begin with, the scale of the work is perfect for the size of the theater. Musical director Glenn Mehrbach leads, with verve and a keen attention to the actors’ pacing, a combo of percussion, cello, and reeds, with himself on piano, from one side of the stage area, separated from the actors by a low wall. The actors all can sing well, and mercifully, they are un-miked, so one can hear them. Only once during the November 1 performance did the volume of the music override that of the voices, and then only briefly. What a pleasure not to struggle to disentangle the words from overdriven amplified music; what a pleasure to feel instead the emotional powers of the music as it wordlessly fills in the stories.
The songs themselves are quite poetic, and the way they swell and swim through the spoken segments is very satisfying. In the show’s first section, “Andra,” young, lonely Noah (beautifully played by high school freshman Neil Bullard, although his voice is naturally not as developed as the others) plops himself and his calculus book down next to cabinetmaker Ben, who’s redoing the kitchen for Noah’s Mom (Erin Tito, whose big voice stays muted here, in keeping with her disappointed suburban existence with a moneymaking husband, present only as a stifling cloud). Mark Ridenhour as the Narrator gave no hint of the explosive work he would do in the second segment, “The Brick.”
Boy Noah and man Ben begin to talk, and certain questions and statements bell out into lines of song. It’s a very powerful way to communicate the characters’ tentative opening toward each other. John Allore, who portrays Ben, incorporated this physical and vocal swelling into his already extensive dramatic palette for painting the human condition, and was highly affecting in this role, especially when he revealed his passion for Andra, his pet name for the constellation Andromeda.
“Andra” contains the leitmotifs that run through the whole work: the human drive for connection to other humans, even though things often, or maybe always, go bad; the mystic power of story that connects us with the aspects of the universe unknowable even to mathematics; the germinal force of kindness; the price of carelessness; the price of knowledge; the price of caring, and the rewards thereof. In “The Brick,” and then in “The Landing,” these motifs appear in very different guises, to be sure. “The Brick” includes a full-out song and dance number for Tito and Ridenhour that is just fabulous (they could have commanded a much larger stage and house) and much silly humor. “The Landing” is both creepy and pathetic, and builds to a pitch of anxiety before the dénouement, and a conclusion that circles us back to a contemplation of the heavens at the end of this highly accomplished production.
For more details on this production of The Landing, please view the sidebar.