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REVIEW: Great The Great Work (7th House Theater)

Hans Gartner (David Carey) shares a heart-to-heart with daughter Charlotte Gartner (Kendall Anne Thompson). Photo by Amy Anderson.

Hans Gartner (Andy Frye) contemplates composing in the flush of passion in The Great Work.
Hans Gartner (Andy Frye) contemplates composing in the flush of passion in The Great Work.

One of the hottest tickets in town last holiday season was 7th House Theater’s production of Jonah and the Whale, the ensemble’s first original musical. Jonah was a hot ticket for a cold time of year; many 7th House Theater fans who’d delayed purchasing tickets found themselves locked out of the 10-day run as it sold out. When the ensemble announced its second original musical, The Great Work, ticket-buying was much more proactive, and many of those previously locked-out fans showed up to pack the house for opening night. History says that waiting is not a good idea if you want to get tickets to this show.

The Great Work is a short, 65-minute musical that engages with questions of what it means to pursue art and finding meaning in life. The book, by Grant Sorenson, is quotidian in character but compelling, like eavesdropping on a particularly interesting conversation on the opposite side of the aisle. It also has a lot of humor, although humor is not the evening’s focus, with lovely offhand lines like “I always thought that having a lesbian daughter would be more exciting.”

The show’s pacing is strong; scenes pass quickly without feeling rushed, and the hour-plus show is over almost before you notice it. The narrative that unfolds is wrapped in the elegant yet barebone staging for which 7th House Theater has become known, spiced up with periodic flourishes that are some combination of the work of designers Kate Sutton-Johnson (set), Adam Raine (lights), and Nicholas Gosen (sound). If you look carefully before curtain, you might see some hints of effects and stagecraft to come – but it’ll still surprise you when they do, and in what variations.

Hans Gartner (Andy Frye) contemplates his other passion, Elisabeth von Laudon (Bergen Baker). Photo by Amy Anderson.
Hans Gartner (Andy Frye) contemplates his other passion, Elisabeth von Laudon (Bergen Baker). Photo by Amy Anderson.

The score, with music and lyrics by David Darrow (also the composer-lyricist for Jonah and the Whale), is a beautiful thing for the ear to hear. Darrow has described waltzes and A Little Night Music as key influences; that may be true in terms of inspiration, but the sound and the character of the songs is something else. The music is written in an advanced tonal idiom, sounding something like what Sondheim circa Passion might have written in a sequel to Into the Woods, with inflections of Alan Menken’s early Disney movie musicals. It is a sound that is layered and complex, but in which you instantly understand what the characters are singing and feeling. (The excellent orchestration by Jason Hansen deserves special mention.) Often, songs come first as fragments, then return as more full pieces; most are splendid miniatures, with which the primary complaint is that you would happily listen to them for another verse or two.

The casting of this production shows a changing of the guard versus 7th House Theater’s earlier work, with none of the founders taking the stage themselves in this show. An interesting father-daughter dynamic spins out between the elder Hans Gartner (David Carey) and his daughter Charlotte (Kendall Anne Thompson) as the rest of the cast don many guises in addition to their principle selves. The musical ebb and flow keeps the cast on their toes, and nothing is static for too long. What seem to be solo songs sprout into duets, trios, and ensemble pieces, and Darrow trots out his most beautiful music for the buds of romance between Elisabeth von Laudon (Bergen Baker) and Hans Gartner’s younger self (Andy Frye), who deliver some of the evening’s best singing. (Aleks Knzevich, as Joseph Schönfeldt, has a few distinctive lines, but his dark and powerful voice is almost criminally underused.)

Franny von Laudon (Shina Brashears) learns to play the piano.
Franny von Laudon (Shina Brashears) learns to play the piano. Photo by Amy Anderson.

One of the most memorable scenes in the musical starts with an unexpected kernel, the line “Look at me – will you look at me?” With a few words and strands of music, the tensions between art, love, and a fulfilling life that are interwoven into the background swell to the foreground. The vivid description of music – the titular great work – that follows evokes the infamous scene in Amadeus without being derivative. It’s deliciously crafted, sensuous, and the occasion for an exquisite musical foray. It’s worth going back to hear again.

The Great Work plays at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through January 3, 2016.

Basil Considine