By Reuven Glezer
When Ars Nova brings forward a new piece of musical theatre, you better pay attention. From the theater that brought electropop opera Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and the luminous memory musical The Lucky Ones comes a new, sci-fi folk concert about revolution, love, and acceptance.
Andrew R. Butler’s Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of The Future is a victorious, musically-gorgeous achievement. At first you might think you’ve been fooled into just attending some kind of concert; the alien speakeasy rendering of Ars Nova’s jewel box performance space is an easy enough assumption to indulge in. However, be forewarned that this is all an illusion, a way to lull you into excitement as the story of Rags Parkland and his band The Future begins to take shape in eerie ways.
The audience watches as Rags Parkland takes up guitar and banjo singing what appear to be simple folksy tunes, but it slowly becomes obvious what kind of world these tunes has been birthed from – an Earth ravaged by climate change, a fractured America, and a world where artificial humans are illegal by their nature. Rags, revealed to be the only “normal” human in the band, is somewhat of an audience anchor for this future world, only for our hearts to break once the full story has been told.
The Future is a band you might wish had released an album, because their sonic synchronicity is truly unparalleled. Just wait for Rick’s story about being one of the first artificial humans alongside his own special solo on the accordion (here played by Rick Burkhardt), or for Devo (Jessie Linden) blasting through the drums and her eccentric ticking sounds as speech. Special notice goes to Debbie Christine Tjong, who plays the bass and Ess Pinvit, one of the greatest electric bass players to grace the musical theatre tradition. Madeline Smith’s music direction shines through in this chaotic, yet slickly conceived production, directed by Jordan Fein.
However, one should take careful note of the number “100 Years of Subterranean Blues”, a duet between Rags and his lover, Beaux Weathers, sung with an illustrious shining screech by Stacey Sargent. It’s in this heartfelt, copper-toned ballad about rising amidst the rubble and chaos that the robot heart of Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of The Future shows with a gleaming light. The production, lit by Barbara Samuels, costumed by Andy Jean, and set by Laura Jellinek, brings this distant Earth to the present. Mikaal Sulaiman’s chilling sound design for some of the show’s tensest moments only goes to show how powerfully wrought this theatrical concert truly can be.
Now if only we had a cast album to listen to The Future on repeat.