100 Heartbreaks

There was no way I was going to miss 100 Heartbreaks.

Even in the midst of the respiratory mayhem the season and the run of Changelings has wrought and the few nights my schedule allows me, I had to come. As I told director Jess Hutchinson on being greeted warmly to the Sahara Lounge – I tried to make this show 2006.

Discussion of my tact level aside, it’s entirely true. My and Will’s version of this show anyway…
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 In 2006 Will and I (then with Gobotrick Theatre Company) decided to recreate our ArtSpark experience and give ourselves 3 months from blank to stage to create a production. We knew that we had the Dougherty Arts Center and that April Perez (now Moore), who had recently performed the title role in Will’s Elektra, wanted us to do a musical. We decided to create an anthology show at a lounge featuring the last night of a local on her way to bigger things. In the front of the house were audience members going through similar transitions.

We had a kick ass band and a solid cast, but the form itself has pitfalls and the ancillary stories we devised with the cast lacked the conflict to keep the entire evening aloft. The show soared when the music was playing and dragged in between (I’m generalizing of course).  The world of the Dougherty Arts Center never really felt anywhere near intimate enough to replicate the sort of lounge we wanted, and the formalism of it being a theatre space (no matter how municipal) placed a distance between the audience and the characters that hurt the connection we wanted to create.

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I had to see how someone else dealt with these issues.

According to the Statesman, Joanna Garner, who wrote 100 Heartbreaks, composed all the relevant songs and performs as Charlane Tucker has been workshopping this for a few years.  The care and work shows.

 The first thing Garner and director Hutchinson got right was site specific venue selection. The Sahara Lounge is fantastic. The atmosphere buys the show a lot of goodwill from jump, and the drinks are quite good (I had a Old Fashioned with a touch of ginger syrup on opening night). The Sahara could absolutely be a dive in Montana, or Kentucky, or any ol’ end of the road really.

Right off the bat I just a bit nervous because in a non-immersive site-specific show the hand-off between “real-world” and “show world” can be awkward. You don’t have the shorthand conventions of a formal theatre setting to help you alert the audience to silence and attention and the further decision to have the opening moments set off of the Sahara’s breadbox of a stage made the opening moment softer than I would have liked. it was difficult to gauge “character awkward” versus performer awkward in the beginning. So yeah, I got nervous. But nerves went away pretty quickly once Garner and the band mates took to the stage and started playing. The music is good, even if the vocals were lower in the mix than I would have liked. The band is as real as it gets and Garner can really sing.

With a bit of a stumble into the show proper the next hurdle is exposition. How do we get leveraged into  this world  without getting swamped by gawky musician banter?  Mostly, you make sure that real-as-it-gets band can act and you power through the gawky stage banter, coasting on the rapport the cast has with one another. But 100 Heartbreaks really coalesces when Mark (Heath Allyn) joins the proceedings and we shift from telling to showing. The chemistry between Mark and Charlane is lovely and is most evident in the ways that we want it to be between our mythologized musicians: when they are singing with and to one another. When they’re sneaking glimpses at one another while sharing a microphone or more aggressively flirting after hours we see the hours on the road and on stage tumbling out and it is exactly the kind of intimacy we mean when we set out to create this sort of show. The sort of intimacy that feels almost voyeuristic in the moment.

The solid ensemble building and the fantastic scene work between Garner and Allyn pay off in  a third act that has the backing band rooting as openly as we are for the inevitable. And we are rooting and it is inevitable. For me that’s become something of a bellweather for really well-made shows – nothing unexpected happens in 100 Heartbreaks and that doesn’t matter at all because being on the road with the folks is such a joy. No, 100 Heartbreaks doesn’t present a solution to exerting control over an informal performance space or how to smooth over the talky exposition the form forces, but it washes them away with  a great cast, winning songs, and bucket loads of charm.