Book and Lyrics: Sarah Ruhl; Music: Todd Almond. At: Piven Theatre Workshop, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets: 847-866-8049 or www.piventheatre.org; $20-$35. Runs through June 7
Former Chicago-area playwright Sarah Ruhl is famous ( some would say infamous ) for the large amount of whimsy infused throughout her writing. It's certainly the case with Piven Theatre Workshop's Midwest premiere of Melancholy Play: a chamber musical, which is a homecoming for Ruhl.
Ruhl received much of her extracurricular theater schooling through Piven while growing up. And Piven stood by Ruhl by mounting some of her early works, such as premiering the original Melancholy Play back in 2002. Now that Melancholy Play has been adapted into a full-blown musical with a score by composer Todd Almond, it's only natural that Piven to premiere it.
Now a musical, Melancholy Play once again focuses on the beautiful but depressive bisexual bank teller Tillie ( Stephanie Stockstill ) and the various people who fall under her alluring spell. These folks include her generalized European therapist Lorenzo ( a mustachioed Ryan Lanning ), tailor Frank ( Chris Ballou ), physicist-turned-hairdresser Frances ( Lauren Paris ) and her British nurse lover, Joan ( Emily Grayson ).
It's precisely Tilly's depressive nature that helps make her so attractive to everyone. Yet once she becomes truly happy ( for whatever reason ), all her admirers and lovers are thrown into a tailspin by the sunny change in her dispositionso much so that one woman turns into an almond. So everyone tries to find a way to transform her back to a human again.
As forewarned, this is truly whimsical stuff. But with Almond's added musical score and the dedicated and enthusiastic performances of the cast, this doesn't feel as cloying as it could be. Scored for a string quartet with Aaron Benham as the pianist/music director, Almond's score flows in and out like recitative and fits in with the chamber nature of the intimate venue. In fact, the music makes the quirkiness and daffiness of the characters and the fantastical situations feel far more acceptable by heightening the unreal nature of it all.
Director Polly Noonan has created a simple and largely amusing production that capitalizes on the charisma and comic timing of her fine cast. Stockstill certainly makes for an entrancing Tillie. Yet Stockstill seemed a bit too cheery in Tillie's questioning depressive state, so there wasn't so much of a transformation when she proclaimed her newfound happiness. The rest of the cast is impressive by being so vocally assured and dedicated to their characters' dilemmas.
So if whimsy isn't your thing, it might be best to keep away from the new musical version of Melancholy Play. But as a Piven homecoming for a Tony Award nominee and successful playwright like Ruhl, Melancholy Play serves as a marker to the importance of this Evanston-based company and its important impact on American theater.