Friday, October 1, 2021

"Stations of the Heart" at Nautilus Music-Theater

Nautilus Music-Theater's main focus is developing new works of music-theater (a hyphenate that encompasses opera, musicals, plays with music, and everything in between) through their monthly "Rough Cuts" series and their annual Composer-Librettist Studio. Their rare but wonderful full productions seem to pop up out of nowhere, but in reality they've been in the works for years. Such is the cast with the lovely new song cycle Stations of the Heart, which was first presented at a Rough Cuts 18 years ago. Now, as theaters are starting to open after a very long extended intermission, it's finally being presented as a full production, although a small one - three vocalists and two musicians. It's exactly what I've come to expect from Nautilus - innovative, modern yet connected to a long tradition, and musically gorgeous. Performances continue through October 17 with limited seating, so make your plans soon (proof of vaccination and mask required).

In a note in the program, lyricist Jim Payne says that this is his attempt at the Great American Songbook, with varied sources of inspiration. Composer George Maurer wrote the songs literally all over the world, with varied musical styles ("blues, tango, cool jazz, 20s-style, Latin, vocalese, pop, jazz-tinged art-song") to match the varied themes and tones of the lyrics. The result is a really fantastic collection of a dozen and a half songs, each one telling a story of love. New love or old love, happy or sad, funny or heart-breaking, each one is a gem.

The songs were written for #TCTheater artist Ann Michels, but since she's a little busy in River City right now, they wisely chose three vocalists and split the duties amongst them. Elena Glass, Dee Noah, and Sara Ochs are all talented singers and story-tellers, each in their own unique way. They mostly sing solos, which really allows their individual talent to shine. But we do get to see them onstage together once in the amusing "Hesitation," and it's a highlight. They change costumes for each song, so it really feels like they're playing a different character, and the clothing is a quick way to help us get to know who this person is. Artistic Director Ben Krywosz directs the piece, with a nicely balanced and varied tone from light and funny to sad or poignant, and choreographer Penelope Freeh has designed some fun and subtle moves for the performers.

Nautilus' small studio space in Lowertown St. Paul seats less than 50, with stage and seating arrangement different for every show. For this one, the stage is nestled into the far corner of the room with (faux) concrete stairs going every which way, even upside down and sideways, with a trim of lights turned on a specific moments (scenic and costume design by Victoria Petrovich, lighting design by Jeff Bartlett). 

George Maurer also serves as music director and piano accompanist, along with Diane Tremaine on cello, both of whom are tucked under a set of stairs. The best part about this intimate space is that no amplification is required; instruments and vocals blend together beautifully in the space unaltered by microphones or speakers. There's nothing better.

Stations of the Heart continues through October 17 (click here for details).