Composer Gregg Coffin, familiar to local musical theater aficionados for his masterful portrait of a fractured family (“Convenience”) and zany dose of musically flavorful romance (“Five Course Love”), is in the spotlight once more as the Human Race Theatre Company presents the regional premiere of his genuinely affecting, sung-through opus “right next to me,” a poignant, solemn and timely musical about love, loss and acceptance that in some respects feels as if it’s still a work in progress.
Since its 2009 Human Race workshop, “right next to me” underwent major rewrites resulting in a more succinct vision. It has smoothly advanced from a tale of three interweaving storylines to one that specifically focuses on the depressed, heartbroken Jen (Maria Couch), a widow struggling to move forward a year after her husband, Marine Major David Marshall (Jamie Cordes), was killed in Iraq. With the help of her brother-in-law, Marine Captain Michael Marshall (Jim Poulos), Jen is ultimately able to assess and endearingly reflect on the past and her current state of transition as she joins Michael in scattering David’s ashes at a variety of meaningful places per his request such as a sledding hill, a trestle bridge and an amusement park.
Oddly, the first and second scenes are slow, confusing and musically unexciting. Jen’s loyal friend Trish Holmes (Dana Mierlak) particularly opens the show with a bundle of energy, but there isn’t a clear indication of who she is or why she is an important presence. It is understandable Jen would need someone to confide in, but Trish, a busy supermom, is presently underdeveloped to the point of being superfluous. Mierlak, a fine vocalist, tries to inject depth into the role but her forced efforts, including her comedic timing, fall short under the otherwise fluidly focused direction of Melissa Rain Anderson.
Still, Jen and David’s appealingly surreal exchanges, a series of well-conceived flashbacks and the impactful journey of reconciliation between Jen and Michael evolving from rocky discord to tender hopefulness keep the action emotionally resonant while providing an assortment of tuneful pluses. Coffin, responsible for the expert orchestrations, admirably infuses evocative Middle Eastern inflections into the pop/ballad-friendly score for some of David’s Iraq-inspired numbers, solidly interpreted by Cordes in one of his most striking portrayals. Couch, a naturally emotive actress very compatible with Cordes throughout, especially in the delightful “Two Chilly People,” brings Act 1 to a tear-jerking finish with a beautifully pensive rendition of “I Can’t Believe You’re Gone,” a plaintive anthem detailing Jen’s shell-shocked existence. Poulos, so marvelous in “Convenience” opposite Anderson, equally shines, fully conveying Michael’s conflicted nature and bringing heartfelt sincerity to his desire to follow David’s example and become a better man. He also winningly sings the Billy Joel-esque “Confirm/Deny” and terrific title number, a quietly captivating song that deserves a reprise by Jen in the final scene.
Despite conceptual shortcomings, “right next to me” is one of the most engaging new works of the season. It certainly has the potential to be catapulted from decent to dynamic.
right next to me, which opened Friday, May 27, continues through Sunday, June 12 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be special 7 p.m. performances Sunday, June 5 and Tuesday, June 7. Act One: 73 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. The Friday, June 3 performance has been designated ‘Blue Star Mothers Night’ in which $10 from each adult single ticket purchase will be donated to the Dayton Chapter of Blue Star Mothers, an organization supporting military personnel and families. In addition, there will be a post-show talkback following the Sunday, June 5 matinee moderated by Human Race marketing director Leigh Allan and featuring composer Gregg Coffin. Before the June 7 performance, the Lite Fare at The Loft event, offering gourmet sandwiches and desserts for patrons in the Loft lobby courtesy of Citilites, will begin at 5:30 p.m. For tickets or additional information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.
In related news, the Human Race’s 2011 Festival of New Musicals will be held August 5-7 at the Loft Theatre. This year’s selections are Love Makes the World Go ’Round: The Songs of Bob Merrill, Pump Up the Volume (presented by Encore Theater Company and based on the 1990 film of the same name) and Play It Cool.