Review: ‘Midwestern Gothic’ at Signature Theatre

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A native Midwesterner myself, I was eager to see Midwestern Gothic, Signature Theatre’s new show that is being touted as Misery meets Fargo, a thriller musical in the vein of Sweeney Todd set “in the middle of continental nowhere.” Midwestern Gothic features a cast of marginalized characters living forgotten lives on the fringes of society led by Stina (Morgan Keene), a barely-legal thrill seeker. In some respects, Midwestern Gothic met my expectations, and I would actually enjoy seeing the show again – with some changes in the book.

There are many things to like about this production: the stellar cast, the functionally minimal set (Misha Kachman), and evocative costumes (Ivania Stack) meld seamlessly under the expert direction and choreography of Matthew Gardiner.

And there is Composer Josh Schmidt’s songs, which I found hauntingly beautiful and greatly enjoyed the unconventional, atonal sound of the five-piece band helmed by Mmusic director Timothy Splain. Many of the songs (“A Million Poses,” “Gonna Get Us in Trouble,”) feature complex vocal counterpoint that allow two characters to present their own perspectives simultaneously in song. I also enjoyed Schmidt and Royce Vavrek’s lyrics.

Timothy J. Alex and Morgan Keene in Midwestern Gothic. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Midwestern Gothic revolves around Stina, but we were nearly an hour into the show before I was given a compelling reason to be invested in her character. Prior to that, the show meanders through a series of songs that introduced her dreams of a life beyond the Midwestern farm where she lives in perverse isolation with her step-dad Red (Timothy J. Alex), while her mother Deb (Sherri L. Edelen) avoids the family by overnighting at the bar where she works.

It is clear that Stina is special in some way – in song after song (perhaps too many songs) she reminds us that she refuses to die of boredom. She has energy and vision that the rest of the farm folk lack and because of this they are all drawn toward her.

But for most of the show, I found myself wondering where her story was going and why I was supposed to care about her. Once the story comes to a head, and we see the twisted ways that Stina’s “exceptionalism” manifests itself, my interest was finally piqued. There is a compelling story there, it just needs to come out sooner. The second to last song in particular, “Mama Cries Into Her Tea,” gave me a lot of insight into Stina’s past that I wish I had known earlier on in the show.

But the performances in Midwestern Gothic are unanimously superb. I preferred Morgan Keene’s (Stina) voice when it took on a Marilyn Monroe coquettishness in “Tell Me a Story, Crocus” and “Bathtub Burlesque,” while Timothy J. Alex was vulnerable and earthy as Red. Alex has a booming voice that filled the theater on songs like “In the Shame of My Loving You.” Keene, Alex and director Matthew Gardiner did an excellent job of navigating the show’s “R-rated” moments, including the opening scene in which Stina attempts to seduce her stepfather.

Timothy J. Alex and Rachel Zampelli in Midwestern Gothic. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The supporting cast includes a slew of Signature stalwarts: Sherri L. Edelen plays Stina’s mother Deb, a brassy waitress who shows the boys who’s in charge in “Whiskey Courage.” Rachel Zampelli, turns out a titillating drunken performance as LuAnn, the woman Red picks up at the bar. Zampelli’s big number “‘Neath the Surface” featured flawless vocals. Sam Ludwig’s portrayal of the dimwitted Anderson was an excellent counterpoint to Stina’s scheming and Bobby Smith created a vivid and humorous character in police officer Dwayne.

In the new Donald Trump era when East Coast effetes are clinging to their NEA funding and scratching their heads over Hillbilly Elegy, theater and the American heartland would seem to have a complicated relationship.

Midwestern Gothic if filled with fine performances and direction. It would benefit from work on its storyline if it wants to bridge those two worlds.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Midwestern Gothic plays through April 30, 2017 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.

Note: Midwestern Gothic contains material that is only suitable for mature audiences.

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