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Ashland Review: Family Album


by Dorothy Velasco

for broadcast on KLCC, Aug. 5, 2014

“Family Album” is a new rock musical commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Written by the artist known as Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, and directed by Joanna Settle, the show features excellent performers, many of them from the New York music scene.

Stew won a Tony award for the book of a previous musical, “Passing Strange,” but this time the script is sketchy and most of the characters are thinly drawn. Plenty of ideas float around like dandelion seeds, but instead of landing on the ground and taking root, they blow away.

The premise of “Family Album” is hardly compelling enough to merit three hours of our time. In the beginning we learn that the Putney Swopes, a well regarded band that has never made it big, is about to open for a hugely popular teen group at Madison Square Garden.

Heimvey, the leader of the aging indie band for over 20 years, has always refused to sell out. He wants to be in total control of his art, which means also controlling the band members. His ethics can be both admirable and insufferable.
          No one knows this better than the bass player Claudia. The romance between them has cooled but they are as intertwined as any blood relatives. The whole band is a family, even though some members move on.

Two who did so are Cleo, Heimvey’s previous lover, and Norman, a former drummer. Cleo and Norman, choosing a conventional life, have been long married and dote on their precocious child called the Kid. Cleo is an acclaimed artist and Norm is now a wealthy stockbroker and art dealer.

The question is: make money or make art? Sometimes it’s possible to do both, but probably not without selling your soul, according to Heimvey. With Norman’s financial help, he decides to set up an experimental art commune, but he still wants to be in charge.

This show is more of a dramatized album than a musical with a plot. The mostly entertaining songs are poignant, bitter or wry. Some, like “Black Men Ski,” seem thrown in just for fun.

The musicians are wonderful instrumentalists and singers, but the performers who are above all actors, including Miriam Laube as Cleo, Alex Emanuel as Norman, Daniel Parker as the oversized Kid and the Broadway actor Lawrence Stallings as band member Paul, are so powerful that the musicians, even Luqman Brown as Heimvey, fade in comparison.

“Family Album” plays at the Thomas Theatre through August 31, when “Water by the Spoonful” will return till the end of the season.

This is Dorothy Velasco with KLCC’s Ashland Review.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.