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REVIEW: A Stations of the Heart Time Capsule (Nautilus Music-Theater)

The set of Stations of the Heart, now playing at the Northern Warehouse in Lowertown St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Nautilus Music-Theater.

After an extended, mostly quiet pandemic hiatus, Nautilus Music-Theater returned to in-person art-making last week with Stations of the Heart, a musical theatre song cycle of sorts by composer George Maurer and lyricist Jim Payne. This set of 18 songs – performed by three singer-actors, cello, and piano – is often humorous, occasionally touching, and very clearly not a product of recent sentiments.

The main foci of Stations of the Heart (the title is a reference to the Christian Stations of the Cross) are the trials and tribulations of dating from a female perspective. Well, sort of a female perspective. The score is strongly evocative of the Broadway sounds of the 1920s-1950s, and the lyrics delve into more or less exactly the sorts of stylized caricatures of femininity that you expect in those periods. Indeed, much of the recurring humor about the (ever offstage, never seen) men’s flaws revolves on the very thinly veiled implications that they are gay – something also typical of the period.

Whether these details are incidental, welcome, or bothersome is a subjective thing. At Sunday’s performance, the greying audience seemed more amused than perturbed by this old-fashioned vibe, laughing vigorously at the many lyrical jokes and humorous setups. It’s rather like digging up an old Noël Coward revue – so much that you could pull lines from the New York Times review of Coward’s Sigh No More (1945) and find they fit quite exactly: “A light, easy, amusing entertainment, disconcertingly without the impress of a definite style.”

The 10th Station of the Cross at the Basilique de Notre Dame de Genève. As with the Biblical Jesus, the women in Stations of the Heart undergo a tortuous journey towards a hoped-for end, including being stripped of their dignity in numerous ways. Photo by Yann.

There is something to be said for light entertainment – certainly, there are many pleasant bow strokes of the cello under Diane Tremaine’s melodious hands, and the trio of singer-actors (Elena Glass, Dee Noah, and Sara Ochs) give amiable performances. Still, it’s the moments where songs seem to connect – and particularly the Act I trio finale, which is fantastic – where the material shines the most.

It has been more than a century since story-driven musical theater became Broadway’s predominant thrust, the odd jukebox musical and Smokey Joe’s Cafe notwithstanding. Revues and musical theatre song cycles are the exception, not the rule, and they tend to be brief amuse-bouches: pleasant in the moment, and not really intended to be a meal. As Coward said of revues, “Everything has to be condensed to an appalling brevity.”

The brevity and ephemerality of the moments in Maurer and Payne’s Stations of the Heart is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s an afternoon of enjoying jokes, songs, and amusing situations without having to worry about even a wisp of a plot, and thence on to the rest of your day (or dinner), with nary a care to follow.

Stations of the Heart plays through October 17 at Nautilus Music-Theater in Lowertown St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine