The legend or Robin Hood is familiar, that the opening of Hood, the world-premiere musical now at the Wyly Theatre, is merely a recitation of its various incarnations, including a printed timeline. You aren’t meant to approach the material as a novice; the script, by playwright and librettist Douglas Carter Beane, assumes a working knowledge of the characters, the general plot, the moral of the story. What, then, is the point in rehashing it?
The point is to explore these tropes through the fresh perspective and energy of Beane (who also directed) and his cast of 12 young dynamos, who inhabit Sherwood Forest like a swarm of woodland creatures. Hood has endured for nearly a millennial because the fable reinvents itself for every generation. “He’s not my king!” grouses one Merry Man when the wicked Prince John (portrayed by a series of squinty, hoarse puppets) rising to the throne. That could have been written by Joe Scarborough last week instead of years ago as Beane was developing the show with his partner, the composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn.
The style of the show — with its single set, tight ensemble and folksy melodies — resembles the stage version of Once more than the bloated Broadway bombast of, say, Camelot. There’s even a touch of Godspell (and the recent Fiasco Theatre tour of Into the Woods) in the mix, with its conceit of homemade costumes, “found” puppets and diverse cast. Throw in some Monty Python, the campy excess of a patently gay Will Scarlett, and lovely orchestrations, and you have a rousing retelling of the legendary tale.
As a world premiere, there are hiccups (some of the lyrics are pedestrian and repetitive, for instance, and some of the stagings are awkward even for something meant to look intentionally unpolished), but the themes of feminism, and the rollicking cast (especially Nick Bailey as Robin, Ashley Park as Marian, Austin Scott as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Jacob ben Widmar at Will Scarlett), make this a terrific start to a new tradition.
Another world premiere opening last week has much less fanfare, but shines just as brightly… well, darkly. Blake Hackler’s The Necessities from Second Thought is a lean four-hander about a quartet of newcomers to a small Texas town. Single mom Carly (Allison Pistorius) has carted her queer son Ward (Tex Patrello) all over tarnation, providing everything but affection and a role model. Debbie (Christie Vela) is a uneducated, unskilled worker with her own failings as a mom; Peter (Matthew Gray) is a defrocked minister trying to restart his life after a tragedy with his own child. They converge in short set-pieces, usually of just two (all four never interact simultaneously), but all trying their hardest to find a their ways in the world.
The concept of “lost souls seeking connection” is well-trod in theater, but Hackler’s astonishing new play takes you in unexpected directions without ever broadcasting its message. Instead, you see these raw, unadorned characters (Vela wears no apparent makeup, and looks convincingly defeated) at their meanest and most vulnerable. You have to piece together who they are as much as they are doing it themselves: Is Peter interested in a romance with Debbie, or trawling for sex with Ward? Is there something sexual between Debbie and Carly? Is Ward troubled mentally, or some kind of prophet of the universe? Director Joel Ferrell handles all these conflicting stories deftly, placing them in a moody, organic set (designed by Diggle) that adds an element of ritual to it all. The Necessities shows great maturity in every way; it grabs you, and demands you think about everyone as a human being in need of empathy, no matter how damaged.
I can think of few things that create less a sense of wonder than those that try hysterically to create a sense of wonder. Charm can’t be taught — you either have it, or you’re a member of the Trump family. The odor of desperation wafts mightily from the stage of the Winspear as Finding Neverland sings and dances its way through the (highly fictionalized and reductionist) tale of how playwright J.M. Barrie managed to write his most enduring hit, the treacly, overrated panto Peter Pan. Turns out, before he met sad, young Peter Llewelyn-Davies, the successful Barrie had lost touch with his inner child! Writing had become hard! When he discovered a sense of play, well, naturally, he made a fortune and gave middle-aged women a leading role as a prepubescent boy they could milk for decades. Errr…. I mean, he created “art.”
Director Diane Paulus sleepwalks through the staging, which both exaggerates banal actions (the ensemble struts in flamboyant gaits as if they all learned choreography at The Ministry of Silly Walks) and turns quiet moments into listless drones of dialogue.
I’ve never been much of a fan of Peter Pan in any of its incarnations, though the 2004 film version of Neverland was entertaining enough. The film won an Oscar for its dramatic underscore; so far as I can tell, no trace of that music is present in this musical adaptation, composed by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, who seem bound and determined to make each song as generically uninvolving as a roadside panhandler. I’ve heard 30-second ad jingles with more wit and catchy melodies then this entire score. By the time I walked into the lobby for intermission, I couldn’t recall a single note. So I didn’t bother going back in. When a show makes you hope no one claps for Tinkerbell, it’s a lost cause.
Hood at the Wyly Theatre through Aug. 6. DallasTheaterCenter.org. The Necessities at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys campus through July 29. 2TT.co. Finding Neverland at the Winspear Opera House through July 23. ATTPAC.org.