The Elementary Spacetime Show is an unusual musical about a subject you don’t often see onstage: teenage suicide. With music, book and lyrics by César Alvarez, the show treads the line between sensitivity and over-the-top showmanship.
In the opening scene of The Elementary Spacetime Show, we see Alameda, a depressive teenager, take a handful of pills after being “up all night plotting ways I can die.” Instead of dying, though, Alameda (played poignantly by Julia Louis) ends up transported to a peculiar postmodern vaudevillian purgatory. There she’s forced to play a series of outlandish games to determine whether she lives or dies. Alameda must deal with the show’s overbearing MC (played with sly humor by Salty Brine), plus a more gentle guide (Electra Weston, who gives the sometimes crass show a classy touch).
The Elementary Spacetime Show is a smart show; at one point Alameda ends up in a metaphysical argument with the philosopher Albert Camus. And it rejects simplistic solutions to a complex issue; Alameda’s outlook is so bleak that no pep talk saying “Choose Life!” will convince her that life is worth living. By addressing the subject this way, Alvarez reaches out to a generation of lost souls who feel adrift in a confusing world that makes no attempt to understand them. It’s an admirable mission.
Yet despite its skill, smarts and good intentions, I had a hard time warming up to The Elementary Spacetime Show. Part of the reason was that the show’s message seemed muddled, leaving me as befuddled as the heroine. Alameda earns the audience’s sympathy, but the show spent so much time presenting her point of view that much of it ended up as gloomy as Alameda herself. A stronger opposing viewpoint would have made the story more focused.
Another big problem with the show is its poor sound mix, which resulted in more than 75% of the lyrics – plus a big chunk of the dialogue – being completely unintelligible. And the musical arrangements for the four-piece backing band (credited to Alvarez and the four musicians) made things worse, as the singers were frequently drowned out by metallic percussion and an electronic keyboard that played in the same register as the singers’ voices. Alvarez contributes some good melodies in a series of diverse styles, and the lyrics that do make it through the muck are clever, but long stretches of the show are hard to follow. (Listing the song titles in the program would have helped make things clearer.)
Fortunately, Director Andrew Neisler has given The Elementary Spacetime Show a busy, elaborate production that makes the show’s more difficult passages go down smoothly. I has excellent performances by its three leads, plus inspired comic turns by Andrew Farmer as a fire-and-brimstone preacher and Michael Adrian Burgos as a hipster version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, both of who Alameda meets at different points in the game.
Sonya Tayeh and Ben Hobbs contribute intricate choreography for the 20-plus member ensemble. And the design work is consistently witty, from Carolyn Mraz’s deliberately garish set to Tilly Grimes’ costume design, which clads the chorus in a string of red jumpsuits covered with glitter.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
The Elementary Spacetime Show plays through September 24, 2016 at The Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at the Arts Bank at The University of the Arts – 601 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 413 1318, or purchase them online.