Darren Ritchie, Eryn Murman, Jenna Leigh Green, Matt Shingledecker, and Alex Goley in STANDBY. Photo by Lynne Robinson.
BOTTOM LINE: A sincere new rock musical about loving and living.
Five individuals wait at an unmarked airport gate for reasons that are wholly unclear to them. As they try to piece together why they are randomly in this strange environment, it becomes clear that they are all connected to one another in various ways. They also come to realize -- within the first few minutes of the show -- that they are all, in fact, dead, and the flights they are waiting for will take them to the afterlife, in one direction or the other.
Standby is a clever concept, offering a unique frame for how we analyze a meaningful life. These individuals -- they're all technically sinners though they're all good people -- have to decide who is worthy of Heaven as there are only two seats available. The score is nearly an operetta, almost entirely sung through, and the songs offer the "passengers" time in the spotlight to reflect on their transgressions and one-time dreams.
Performed by a brilliant cast, Standby is emotionally affecting. Aside from beautiful voices that carry these tunes to the rafters, each actor gets to the root of their character's pain with sincerity and a truth that's sometimes difficult to watch. The characters are all types: a soldier (Matthew Shingledecker); his spoiled fiancé (Jenna Leigh Green); a businessman (Darren Ritchie); a teenage girl facing loss of her own (Eryn Murman); and probably the most derivative, a 19-year old gay kid named Andrew whose sexual orientation is rejected by his family, driving him to suicide (Alex Goley). Each character's story is unfortunate, but Andrew's is the one with the most emotional resonance; it seems like the writers have a bit more of an agenda with this storyline than with the others.
Standby's strongest feature is its music and orchestrations (by Amy Baer and Keith Robinson), both soulful and complex. And performed by its stellar cast, it's an enjoyable experience. I've yet to mention Dwelvan David, who plays Peter, the "gate keeper," as it were. With a powerhouse voice and an equally bold presence, David brings a boisterous gospel-infused aura to an otherwise downtrodden room. And this is indicative of the show's larger issue, a sometimes inconsistent tone. Because the plot itself is so inactive (aside from a little bickering and a lot of internal conflict), and we spend so much time hearing stories about sad things that happened in the past, there is a somber mood throughout the show. But the moments Peter is onstage are delightfully wicked and occasionally upbeat, as David evokes the voice and attitude of Audrey II. However where Little Shop of Horrors is a comedy, though a dark one, Standby is very much not a comedy. I wonder if it might benefit from a lighter touch overall.
Reflections on life and death are respectfully brought to light by a committed cast under Carlos Armesto's thoughtful direction. If you are willing to go on the ride and connect with the characters via emotion, there is much to hold onto in this new musical. Several of my fellow audience members were brought to tears, and it was clear that they were very affected by the journeys unfolding in front of them.
(Standby plays at Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through July 28, 2013. Remaining performances are July 24th at 1PM and July 28th at 5PM. Tickets are $25 each and can be ordered by visiting nymf.org or calling 212.352.3101.)