Performance Network's 'Brill' will likely be music to many theatergoers' ears
photo courtesy of Performance Network
In one scene of David Wells’ world premiere play “Brill,” now having its world premiere at Performance Network, veteran big band composer Jimmy Wise (Phil Powers) breaks down the structure of a pop song, explaining to his mentee (Sarah Ann Leahy) how the bridge must be both surprising and inevitable, and cast an entirely new light on the verses and chorus that precede it. No easy task, right?
And of course, songwriting is a form of storytelling, so the principles that guide “Brill” are not so different. Indeed, one of the play’s pleasures derives from the way you can’t predict where the story will go next, while knowing you’re in the hands of a wholly capable storyteller.
Set in 1959, in Manhattan’s famous Brill Building - which housed musicians, songwriters, music publishers, etc. - Wells’ play tells a story of unlikely friendship, and artistic collaboration, that evolves between a big band composer (Jimmy) who insists that rock and roll is a dying fad, and a 19 year old, guitar-playing young woman (Margie) from Brooklyn who manages to sell the beginnings of a song on her first day while riding in the elevator.
Powers and Leahy each suffered a few minor dialogue (and musical) stumbles during Saturday evening’s two-hours-plus performance, but they’re generally a strong team. Leahy conveys the paradoxical mixture of bravado and vulnerability that so often typifies young adulthood, while Powers makes Jimmy a somewhat grizzled, but nonetheless compassionate, man who feels the ground beneath his feet shifting. The stage chemistry between the two, guided by director David Wolber, simply works - from moments of levity to the play’s most intense crisis points.
And “Brill”’s script is impressive and appealing, if not flawless. As Jimmy and Margie come to reveal their secrets to one another, one seeming coincidence may test the audience’s willingness to believe, as does the speed with which the two grow close. (One’s blurted confession acts as a catalyst in this process, but even so, the relationship goes from awkward to nurturing pretty quickly.) All this having been said, Wells’ dialogue showcases intelligence and charm, and you become emotionally invested enough in the characters to forgive the script’s small shortcomings.
From a design standpoint, special mention must be made of Daniel C. Walker’s fabulous set, which cleverly fleshes out the play’s third character: the Brill Building itself. By showcasing Jimmy and Margie’s shared office at an angle, and including, beyond its door, a hallway, additional office doors, and a mail and coffee station, we visually get a larger sense of this musicians’ hive, despite the fact that we only see two of its inhabitants.
Charles Sutherland provides magnificent, era-appropriate props for this interior landscape (which is also lit by Walker), and Will Myers’ appealing sound design employs, during scene transitions, music (presumably) born in the halls of the Brill Building, as well as the voices of sound engineers at work in a studio. Costume designer Monika Essen, meanwhile, further emphasizes the contrast between Jimmy and Margie, dressing the former in suspenders and collared shirts, while the latter wears rolled up jeans and a scarf that hangs from her high ponytail.
Finally, music necessarily plays a key role in “Brill,” and Frank Allison’s original songs fit within the story exceedingly well, aided by R. MacKenzie Lewis’ thoughtful music direction and arrangements, which help achieve the illusion of spontaneous artistic creation.
And feeling as though you’re getting to witness the birth of a song, as well as a surprising artistic partnership, is definitely part of the play’s magic.
"Brill" continues through Feb. 10 at Performance Network. For background, check out the preview article. For tickets, see the Performance Network website.