Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2002
This is just a fabulous show. It looks and sounds like nothing I have seen at the theatre in many a day. It is billed as a “jam-rock musical” but it is really a rock opera, and it comes equipped with all the baggage of grand opera – its too long, you can’t understand half of the words, and the plot is incomprehensible.
There is no doubt that Henry's House has been and continues to be a tremendous labor of love for composer/lyricist/performer Lo Faber. He wrote the score in an artistic frenzy that lasted from late January through May 2001, and immediately recorded it as a concept album, with little thought of staging it. The album received quite a bit of national attention from music critics and fans of Faber’s now defunct jam band, God Street Wine. Just over a year ago Kevin McGuire, the artistic director of the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall received a copy of the CD and contacted Faber, who has a home in nearby Argyle, NY, to propose a theatrical venture.
I am not a big rock fan, I had never heard of Lo Faber before the publicity for Henry's House hit the local papers, and I was unable to afford more than one ticket for the show so I did not go with a child in tow. So what does one middle-aged housewife find so fabulous about a rock opera? I have never been to a TCHH production where I have failed to be impressed with the use of space, light, color, costume, and movement on a small budget, and this was no exception. But what was cool about this was that it is a show about and for kids. There are very few of those around.
As noted before, Faber is a better musician than he is a storyteller. He didn’t plan out the plot in advance, although he did have the ending firmly in mind, and he wrote the plot and lyrics to fit the music, rather than the other way around. This is very much the way a child invents a story, and the result is a story that children find fabulous because they find its convoluted path familiar.
Henry’s father and mother are kidnapped by Crafty Foxx (David Girard) and Volcano Boy (Adam Jansson), cogorts of the “demon” Bubsy Beals (Todd Pasternack, a member of the Lo Faber Band). The parents of seven other children, referred to by Faber as the “kings and queens” of this fantasy realm, go off to fight the evildoers, sending the kids up north to Henry’s parents’ summer house. The eight kids get in a VW bus driven by Crazy Davie (Tom Pirozzi, the bassist for the Band and one of the hippiest looking hippies that I have seen since the Summer of Love), travel to Henry’s House, and meet up with Teacher Tess (Angela Ford, another band member), a witch who has cried a Lake of Tears over the past 20 years for the loss of her true love Prince Julian, who was supposedly killed. Henry’s parents loaned Tess the house in which to mourn in exchange for her watching over Bubsy Beals, who is imprisoned at the bottom of the lake.
Well, Bubsy isn’t as imprisoned as everyone thought and before you know it Tess and the kids are captured in his stead. The rest of the show involves their escape and triumph over the forces of evil. There is a happy end and “no one gets hurt.” Frankly, this is the only arena where Faber has strayed from a true child’s imaginings. A kid would enjoy the virtual murder of the bad guys immensely, and then have no problem bringing them back to life for the curtain call or the next adventure.
McGuire has assembled a terrific cast, and the production values are as fantastically imaginative as the show itself. I only wish he hadn’t brought in two “professional kids” – Anthony Blair Hall as Henry and Aaron Schweitzer as Little Jack. Hall has Broadway credits and looks just way too cute and clean to be real. I did not find him particularly exciting or moving in this pivotal role. And Schweitzer, who looks to be about six years old, is just plain scary. He sings powerfully, but his acting is wooden and he seems to be performing out of fear. This is in sharp contrast to the six local kids – Charlotte Pines (Serafina), Josh Gray (Milo), Elizabeth Green (Lucie), Ashley Sheldrick (Madeline), Trevor Strader (Felix), and Hazel Koziol (Lilly) -- who round out the cast and who are obviously having a ball getting to wear cool body mikes and being actors and dancers and rock stars all rolled into one. They are all great, but Pines is a real stand-out.
Ford looks lovely, but she is a singer, not an actress. Pasternack looks ridiculously angelic to be a demon, and he is not an actor either, but he really rocks the house whenever he and his guitar take the stage. Girard makes the foxiest Foxx I’ve ever seen. He just oozes evil.
Costume designer Hope Barry, scenic designer Hal Lemmerman, and lighting designer Eli Enzensberger have all outdone themselves. I have seen some fantasic looking shows at Hubbard Hall, but Henry's House tops them all. The underwater scene and the flight to Smoky Sulphur Mountain on clouds are just remarkable, aided greatly by choreographer Mariah Sanford-White’s energetic and creative dance and movement sequences.
Henry's House is performed on an enormous stage shaped like a capital letter I which bisects the audience completely. I realize that its height is dictated by the height of the actual stage to the historic opera house, but it is a tad tall to be viewed comfortably at such close range, particularly from the front row. Since the stage cannot be lowered and the audience cannot be pushed any further back away from it, I would suggest raising the seats on tiers of risers to relieve a little of the “looking straight up the actors’ noses” effect that currently exists.
I will be fascinated to see what the future holds for Henry's House. It is fabulous and fantastic and desperately in need of cutting. McGuire and Faber invited “downstate” producers to attend the show. Could Hubbard Hall be following in the footsteps of the WTF and the BTF in spawning Broadway productions??
Faber’s Web site helpfully provides all the lyrics, a plot synopsis, and lots of other interesting information.
Henry's House runs through September 1 at Hubbard Hall 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission, and is suitable for the whole family (assuming your whole family likes rock music). Call the box office at 518-677-2495 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002