Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Hung on a Blonde Ponytail," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Two musicians-one an aggressive alpha-male singer, the other a shy guitarist/composer-struggle with their art as they fight over the same girl. Almost a rock and roll cliché, one of them remarks, or rather in BCKSEET production’s current show, an intentional set of them.

Yet even the most worn and repeated story, when retold with depth and sincerity (not to mention solid, original lyrics), acquires an inspiring sense of freshness and new relevance. When that happens, the result is very often something like Hung on a Blonde Ponytail. (Book and lyrics by Gregory G DeCandia, music by Joe Horak.)

Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the story speaks and sings its way through a music magazine interview with Josh (Gregg Pica), a reclusive musician who’s kept himself in hiding after the release of a quickly soaring first album. Flashbacks play out the drama behind each of the songs (mostly sung by DeCandia’s unnamed singer), driven by the unanswered question, "what happened to the other half of this duo?" Though built around an interview that serves initially to narrate the story, Hung never becomes like a (often vulgar and self-indulgent) VH1 "Behind the Music" piece. Instead, both DeCandia and Pica treat the material with sincerity, presenting intriguing characters roughed up by duplicity and self-destruction, told with exceptional lyrics that melt seamlessly into the story. The ending, utterly tragic-as Josh’s obvious affection for his self-destructive singer compels sympathy-ends with one more mystery, beautifully rounded out in the final song.

While he’s written half of the show (in the book and lyrics), DeCandia’s singer is most of the story, and his obvious passion for his own work both motivates and holds the entire evening together. Why he’s still in musical theatre is the real mystery, as he effortlessly looks (and acts) the part of the rock star, while having a voice that bests most of them.

Pica’s Josh gives the right blend of vulnerability and likeability (that hides his darkly played complicity in the singer’s fate), while at the same time providing a softer vocal counterpart to DeCandia’s powerful singing. Between them, director Christopher Butterfield and Debra Henri (as the reporter) keep the interview focused on its ability to drive the plot, even as Josh’s character keeps slipping between the conversation and his guilt-induced imagination.

The music consists mostly of simple, straightforward chords, full of verve and drive, a kind of hunger and restlessness that never became overbearing or too eager to impress (and the guy on electric guitar commandingly rips his way through these chords). The greatest compliment I can write is to note that many in the audience lined up to buy the soundtrack on their way out the door (and I’m listening to it while writing this review). And why not? For $10 anyone who bought this CD got music that was equal to or better than anything (with few exceptions) currently playing on the radio or churned out of the factory known as American Idol (and with DeCandia’s more sincere lyrics to boot).

The only thing missing-more of a back and forth between the reporter and Josh’s character-either make the decision to use her purely as a device that moves the action along (after all, if we’re supposed to believe it’s an interview, we can accept it as that, and let it ride that she’s not a fully developed character). Otherwise, this aspect of the play seems like the most bizarre magazine interview ever conducted, and some of the segues almost confuse the action.

But I only scarcely noticed this omission hours after I left the theatre. Seated in the audience, this story, and DeCandia’s performance, completely captured my attention.

What a good album used to attempt, DeCandia and Horak have put together here in a rock musical raised to the level of true artistry. Hung on a Blond Ponytail stands as a throwback to rock and roll’s great period of singer-songwriters, achieving a compilation of songs that are not only connected chronologically by a story, but which move with an inner aesthetic from one to the next. The music and lyrics, laid down in the plot of DeCandia’s script, and brilliantly executed in this production, capture the tragedy of an album lived by these artists-the truth of their lives, finally put down and owned by them in song.

My only regret is that I can’t arrange my Fringe schedule to see them perform this again.

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