By Bill Marx
But this is an American musical, so political content (and blame for the way things are) must be kept fuzzy, a strategically calculated myopia.
Fall Springs, music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, book and lyrics by Peter Sinn Machtrieb. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Staged by Barrington Stage at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA, through August 31.
A musical about fracking? I had to check it out. Yes, morbid curiosity was involved. But I was also impressed. I have been writing for years that the New England theater scene, to its shame, has been staging nada on the “existential threat” (in the words of MSNBC) of Climate Change. Issues of racism, white privilege, and the value of the “Other” are justly represented, via increasing numbers, in our theaters. But, aside from some productions at the American Repertory Theater and the Underground Railway Theater, there has been little that has addressed the crisis directly. Why is this? The answer is no doubt complex: denial of an intimidating reality meets hope that the consumer party is never going to end.
The Barrington Stage world premiere production of Fall Springs, which I saw in preview, suggests another part of the answer. As Climate Change progresses, the old “entertaining” formulas, the fodder of Broadway musicals and too much supposed “alternative” theater, will no longer make much sense. In a radically transformed environment — “the uninhabitable earth” of David Wallace-Wells’s excellent book — we will be telling ourselves different stories. As far as I am concerned, it can’t happen soon enough.
The show’s central conceit has the makings of an incisive black comedy. The small city of Fall Springs, badly in need of revenue because its underground deposits of “essential oils” have dried up, permits fracking to the point of lunacy. The burg abruptly sinks into the ground, killing thousands. Aside from its impish premise (economic growth = oblivion), Fall Springs draws on standard musical tropes. The central characters are the town’s higher-ups, the mayor and his board, which includes a corporate villain who is a fan of Ayn Rand and sports a gun. Arrayed against these cardboard pillars of respectability are their savvy kids, who are members of a punk rock band, and a zonked-out homeless geologist. The show has its acidic moments: I liked a song warning the crowd that, with an earthquake a-coming, they were all going to die. And it is terrific that a musical has as its hero a young woman who has little time for romance — because she is dedicated to science and the truth. And no problem with the amusingly grisly fate of an amoral corporate creep who knows full well that today’s profits are based on destroying tomorrow. Ken Marks’s loopy Cassandra of a alcoholic geologist also has some snappy lines — particularly about the narcissism of the bourgeois deniers who look down on him.
But this is an American musical, so political content (and blame for the way things are) must be kept fuzzy, a strategically calculated myopia. Hey, some ticket buyers (aside from benighted Trumpites) might take offense. The depressing truth is that fracking benefits us all: the despoliation of the environment fattens up our 401Ks as well as the coffers of oil-friendly banks and well-heeled theater lovers. It will take considerable changes in our comfy lifestyles to initiate meaningful change. Fall Springs‘s satiric targets are lazy and easy; the show’s response to the coming global meltdown doesn’t call for some sort of national collective action or radical program. Each character promises to form a group, show some gumption, etc. Voting is not even mentioned. There’s no song about the need to break up giant corporations, such as the fossil fuel conglomerates. The stance of the musical feels mildly liberal — concerned, but not too concerned. (After all, Joe Biden assures us that the super-duper rich, including fossil fuel tycoons, are as patriotic as the poor.) Progressives of the Elizabeth Warren stripe will leave shaking their heads.
Then there is the American musical’s focus on sentimental domestic psychodrama. After the fracking hits the fan, thousands sink into the quicksand. But that horror is quickly shunted aside to focus on a rapprochement between the mayor and his daughter, who have been feuding because they never properly mourned the death of Mom, a fearless geologist. Balderdash … along with the nerdy son of the corporate meanie, who has a crush on the mayor’s daughter. Can anyone be quite so clueless? Add predicable romantic connections among the survivors, and you have Climate Change as an invitation to self-help therapy. We won’t be able to take care of the environment until parents have told their kids that they love and respect them. Just as innocuous: Niko Tsakalakos’s score, which is homogenized white bread easy-listening pop rock. The so-called punk band here could be a ragged version of the Young Americans. Reggae, blues, grunge, jazz, Afropop — can’t our musicals make use of a variety of genres? Must it be the kind of dinky rock that placates the tastes of aging white audiences? That said, the Barrington Stage’s cast is lively to the point of being overwrought, which is what is called for — given that the show serves up a mini-apocalypse.
For me, a successful musical on fracking would need a book and lyrics that drew on the dark, anarchistic wit of Nathaniel West, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mark Twain. Perhaps the model would be the anti-nuke lampoon Dr Strangelove, a savagely funny look at the self-destructive energies on all sides, liberal, conservative, rich, poor, etc. — with a climax that presented us with graphic pictures of “the uninhabitable earth.” Or a science fiction musical that deals with “a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable.” Maybe a Brechtian musical excursion into the adventures of a group dedicated to taking down the fossil fuel industry. But those slants are not in the least commercial — they stretch the pieties of the musical to the breaking point. Fall Springs means to be silly rather than sharp, reassuring rather than risky. At this point, Global Warming has become too serious for show business as usual.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.