I had a front-row seat to Michael John LaChiusa’s new musical See What I Wanna See at the Public Theater tonight. The big name in the show is of course Wicked superstar Idina Menzel, and while she was great throughout, and had an especially fiery number in the first half, the real showstopper, I thought, was Broadway veteran (and Philadelphia native) Mary Testa with her book-end songs, “The Greatest Practical Joke” and “There Will Be a Miracle” during the second half. The play consists of two New York stories, past and present, introduced by a pair of grace notes from medieval Japan. As the title suggests, the play deals with truth and perception – how the same events can be recounted and felt in different ways. The first is a murder story set in 1951 and the second a post-9/11 tale about faith and belief. The music ranges in quality from pedestrian but endearing to accomplished and touching. While the stories aren’t exactly groundbreaking, the book and lyrics sustained the piece well, and they kept me wrapped up in the show.
One interesting and not altogether unwelcome distraction was the way at least two of the five actors in the ensemble, including the ravishing Ms. Menzel, would at times seem to look directly at me sitting there in orchestra seat A-1, enjoying the show. The Anspacher is a theater in the round, and the stage for this production is set at grade with the front row without any physical separation. Do you stare at them intently, a consummate theatergoer, welcoming the connection from mere feet away, or is it proper to avert your gaze? Do actors ever get distracted by staring at particular audience members? Or do the better ones manage to focus so well that they could stare at a man snoring loudly in his seat and still not be put off or miss a line or inflection? Is there any particular etiquette to reference here? Anybody?
Overall, I felt this was a successful new musical, and while I didn’t walk away humming any of the tunes, I wouldn’t say no to hearing several of the numbers again if possible. The official opening night is later tonight (Sunday), and it runs through Dec. 4.
Also, without giving too much of the plot away, I enjoyed the word play in the titles of the two New York-based stories: “R Shamon,” the ‘50s story, because an ‘A’ was missing from a cinema marquee for Rashomon. (The musical itself is said to be inspired by the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who wrote the story of that film.) And “Gloryday,” playing on the Latin “Gloria Dei,” or “glory of God.”