Review: ‘Gone Missing’ at Encores! Off-Center — A Moving Tribute to a Missing Creator
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 13, 2018
First, a confession, and one that will no doubt brand me as heartless in the eyes of some. I’ve never enjoyed the work of the late Michael Friedman, who died this past September at the age of 41. With due respect for this greatly beloved man, I was never a fan of his work. Well, I’d never been a fan of the work that I had actually seen, including Saved, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Fortress of Solitude, and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
There may have been individual elements that I appreciated in each show, and I certainly enjoyed the overall production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but Friedman’s work per se never made much of an impact on me, except when the scansion was faulty, or when the rhymes didn’t quite work, or when his choices of which moments to musicalize seemed rather odd.
So, I went into Gone Missing, recently presented by Encores! as part of its Off-Center summer series, with a sense of ambivalence. It seemed only right for Encores! to pay tribute to Friedman, given that he was the artistic director of the Off-Center series during the 2017 season. But I wondered if, as a critic, I would find myself in the awkward position of having to find fault with Friedman’s work. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by Friedman’s delightful songs for Gone Missing.
Despite my all-consuming passion for musical theater, I had somehow never attended a show by The Civilians, a theatrical troupe that Friedman worked with a great deal over the years, starting with the group’s founding in 2001. As with other shows by The Civilians, Gone Missing was created from interviews that cast members conducted, this time on the subject of things that people had lost.
Based on the interviews, the cast and artistic director Steve Cosson compiled a show, with Michael Friedman crafting songs inspired by the material. Gone Missing is thus a sort of collage musical, part revue, part song cycle, all on the subject of things that have gone missing from various people’s lives.
Friedman’s songs for Gone Missing are charming in the extreme, tuneful and buoyant, from the jaunty opening and title number to a sprightly Burt Bacharach pastiche, “I Gave It Away.” Friedman picked up on motives from the book to create the songs, but whereas the stories in the book scenes focus on lost objects, the songs tend to be about lost love.
Not to belabor the point, but I don’t recall being quite as enveloped by any of Friedman’s other scores. An insert in the Encores! program described an effort to record all of Friedman’s work, including his other shows with The Civilians. Based on Gone Missing, I shall certainly be checking those recordings out, based on the nimble flair of Friedman’s work here.
Gone Missing is at times howlingly funny, thanks in part to the wonderfully dotty series of characters whose interviews form the show’s spine. Cosson creates parallels among the various interview subjects, for instance when three different women step forward to tell their stories about jewelry that they have lost. Since the interviews weren’t literally transcribed — the cast members would write down what they could remember after the interview — Cosson and company were free to craft dramatic personas rather than stick to journalistic literalism.
One particularly compelling character is a woman who has lost one of her Gucci shoes and proceeds to enlist everyone in her immediate influence in an effort to get the shoe back. She’s the kind of person a lot of people would recognize: the kind who sucks the rest of the world into their drama, and makes it seems like it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the rest of the world to stop everything they’re doing and focus on their one immediate need. Gone Missing is full of these types of iconic personas.
The one entirely fictional element in the show involves a recurring NPR interview with an academic expert on Atlantis and/or the Bermuda Triangle and/or the the Sargasso Sea, all of which are of a piece with the notion of things becoming lost. The segment not only holds the show thematically together, it represents an affectionate but spot-on spoof of “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. Comic gold.
Of course, part of what made Gone Missing such a delight was its versatile cast of six. The always-appealing Susan Blackwell effortlessly shifted between various characters with an admirably natural presence in each. (Let’s get Ms. Blackwell back on the stage again as soon as possible, shall we?) Aysan Celik, a longtime veteran of The Civilians troupe, was an absolute hoot as the lady with the Gucci shoe, as well as in her numerous other characterizations.
John Behlemann had a wonderfully protean quality, convincingly evoking a tough townie cop who has seen more than his share of dead bodies, although he couldn’t quite muster a consistent Spanish accent for the song “La Bodega.” The only minor disappointment in the cast was Taylor Mac, who seemed to be in a totally different world from everyone else, one where subtlety and restraint had apparently been outlawed.
At one point during the opening night of the Encores! Gone Missing, it seemed as though someone was laughing rather loudly during a song that wasn’t intended to be comic. As the sounds continued, it became clear that this person wasn’t laughing, but was rather wracked with sobs. Clearly this was someone who had known Friedman personally.
It was a sobering reminder of the impact Michael Friedman had on the people around him, and made it even clearer that this concert presentation of Gone Missing was fitting tribute to a man who it seems had only really begun to show us what he was truly capable of.
Gone Missing presented by Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, July 11-12, 2018. Created by The Civilians; written by Steven Cosson from interviews by the company (Damian Baldet, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Brian Sgambati, Alison Weller, Colleen Werthmann); music and lyrics by Michael Friedman; “Interview with Dr. Palinurus” by Peter Morris. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll; choreography by Karla Garcia; music direction by Chris Fenwick.
Cast: John Behlmann, Susan Blackwell, Aysan Celik, Deborah S. Craig, Taylor Mac, and David Ryan Smith.
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Cover: Cast of ‘Gone Missing’ (l. to r.) David Ryan Smith, Taylor Mac, Susan Blackwell, John Behlemann, Deborah S. Craig, and Aysan Celik; photo: Stephanie Berger.