By Hazen Cuyler
When your show is titled, Medicine the Musical, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Even before walking into the theater, I envisioned a half-baked, money grabbing spoof. And I hoped to be proven wrong. And I was proven wrong. Mostly. But I was also proven right. The new musical by Michael Ehrenrelch is held together by a talented cast and directed by Joey Murray. It’s playing at HERE Arts Center through November 18. Full of 90’s rock and characterizations you’ve seen before, this production unabashedly embraces Cliché. But if you can ease judgment and relax into that construct, the show succeeds as an enjoyable experience despite some irritating missteps.
In Mr. Ehrenrelch’s new musical, we witness brand new, first year med students receive acceptance letters, form relationships and work toward completing their first year together. They develop friendships, face social and familial challenges and confront daunting examinations. The acknowledged suspense of the play is, “who won’t make it to the second year of med school?”
Here’s a brief list of the musical’s cliché characters:
A mysteriously disabled doctor with limp and cane (aptly named Prof. Crutch). A troubled young man, post incarceration. Students born of privilege, confronted by those without. A distraught son-made-villain, misunderstood and longing for his father’s affection.
Cliché or not, these backstories set the foundation for any depth and sincerity. And if they’re not fully embraced or explored (as clichés often are not), it diminishes the substance of a character and it diminishes the substance of the entire piece.
What’s most apparent is raw talent. Every actor/singer on stage has experience and ability. Vocal power and clarity sends shockwaves through the intimate space. Both Prof. Crutch (Dan Rosenbaum) and Christina (played by Sarah Stewart Chapin) electrify. As quickly as these singing actors have concluded saying what they’ve had to sing, the audience bursts with appreciative applause. This reaction is frequent and deserved.
Intermingled within these impressive vocal performances, reside subtle moments of great sincerity. Tiff, played with sensitivity and honesty by Marina Laurendi, nurtures and cares for her suffering boyfriend. In her heart, he is more important than she. Near the end, she gently adjusts the skewed collar of his lab coat. Though extremely subtle, this reactive gesture communicates her warm, healing nature. The expression of this nature holds further reaching implications. Providing a poetic connection between Tiff’s love and her professional calling.
Of course, there are missteps as well. The casting of one actor is totally distracting. The fault is not the actor’s. One character he plays has a heart attack. Another is constantly lamenting the change of time- the way things used to be when he first became a doctor. Another is a father of a student. The actor cast to play these roles reads to be in his 30’s. The ages required for this track simply require a significantly older actor. This glaring disregard for circumstances distracts and depreciates each of his scenes, resulting in a slight amateur polish to the overall production.
This musical was composed by Michael Ehrenrelch, but it’s not surprising to see that additional arrangements and orchestrations were made by someone connected to RENT (Matthew DeMaria). Harkening back in time with satisfying power chords, we are 90’s every step of the way. Electric guitar, electric keyboard, drums. Medicine the Musical isn’t RENT. But its entire soundtrack hovers around an archetype some shared 90’s sounds. It’s infinitely more care free than RENT, expressing significantly less despair and consequently, perhaps because of that, is less varied than Jonathan Larson. But there’s no denying the fun in hearing the band rock out.
Director Joey Murray admirably keeps charge of this tight ensemble. The pacing never slows and the energy never wanes. Staging is adaptable on this blank canvas and environments remain mostly specific.
And through it all. A question still rests in people’s gut: why does this show actually exist? Despite all the entertainment value. Despite all the satisfaction this production brings. There is substance on the page, yes. The characters are given moving histories and desires, yes. But they’re never taken seriously. They’re never given the chance to be fully explored outside the safe excuse shell of cliché. The production embraces these clichés and successfully makes them a part of the experience in several ways. But when that happens, the audience is left with a hollow, wanting feeling. They’ve experienced so many moments deliberately not acknowledged honestly. This production doesn’t really say anything outside of a fortune cookie message of “work hard and you can achieve something, even if it’s difficult.” And that’s upsetting. If the collection of resources and apparent talent involved, more sensitively explored this material, embracing these clichés as reality, audiences would be rewarded. We would experience a piece of art and not an entertaining gimmick.
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