By Ian Rigg
Kokandy Productions’ Tomorrow Morning is a four-person contemporary musical in a black box about love and marriage.
Though that sounds conventional as it comes (a definite break from a company who typically does more madcap work), Tomorrow Morning is a musical with things on its mind, a deceptively simple study of contrasts and parallels, a series of portraits of one couple on the eve of their wedding and another the night before their divorce.
For director John D. Glover, the name of the game is juxtaposition, literal and figurative, ironic or poignant. He smartly, sentimentally divides the stage into four quadrants, each inhabited by a different character, emigrating and cross-pollinating as need be (couples visit one anothers’ rooms, but the boundaries between them are only broken for dream sequences and artistic effect, and never is the rule-breaking overdone).
Able to see audience members engaged in the same enthralling entertainment across from themselves, patrons arriving early get to see actors inhabiting their spaces, sleeping, smoking, writing, hairbrushing, working, listening to 90s one-hit wonder “Fastball” and making any number of interesting nonverbal acting choices. This smart stroke renders an additional voyeurism to the alley-style staging. Theatregoers have to stare past obstructions to gaze into the individual habitats and head spaces of the characters; it shows how each of these habitats and head spaces are bound by doubts, fears, hope and pain, limiting beliefs that keep these characters from what they want and need.
Glover has guided the actors through these spaces, but much of the excellent execution is thanks to the artisans behind the scenes. Scenic designer Ashley Ann Woods must be commended for her immensely detailed construction of not one, not two, not three, but four distinct apartment sets. Each actor’s biome is diagonal to their corresponding foil. The bright and dreamy bedroom of Kat is across the way from the sensible and sophisticated (but simultaneously umbrous and uninspired) kitchen of Catherine. The messy and dingy bachelor pad of John is littered with boy toys and warm feeling, while the sad bachelor pad of divorcee Jack is largely empty save for a remote control car, a lugubrious lounge chair and a stark wall with a stained window, hanging the saddest Cubs W flag there ever was (and that’s saying something).
Props to prop designer Johnny Buranosky, who has littered the stage with good business and brilliant clues, nearly every item onstage coming into play. Phone calls punctuate the show, as does Mike Patrick’s strong sound design. True to the modus operandi of the show, costume designer Bob Kuhn’s outfits are deceptively simple, showcasing everyday people in various states of undress, but tying characters together and contrasting them through color, pattern, and garment, with a disparity in style not only through age between the couples, but states of mind.
With such an incredible set to play on, Glover’s tight, tender direction is superb, as the actors navigate the emotional landmines they’ve left for one another and themselves. Many songs have the semblance of a moody painting to them, immensely introspective and interspective. Cat Wilson’s brilliant lighting design showcases these vignettes, tying them together and tearing them apart: as one couple kisses, another packs boxes. As one woman sings of fairy tale love, staring into a vanity, another sits alone in her immaculate kitchen, emptily glued to a computer screen. As one man procrastinates writing his vows, another pores through old scrapbooks.
The musical isn’t all musing on the fragility of human relationships. There are plenty of laughs and optimistic oracles to behold. A lot of the levity may be chalked up to choreographer Cameron Turner, who has blocked delightful dances and merry movements. A true testament to Turner is that there’s a dick pic dance of choreographed phone sex. Yeah. You read that right. See this show.
The varied pacing is phenomenal, both rapid fire and long pauses, but none of them empty. The space is perpetually filled with electric charge, both nonverbal and vocal. Music director Kory Danielson has coaxed greatness out of each actor, perhaps by focusing on them as a unit. The harmonies and vocal dynamics are in complete sync. Sumptuous sforzandos, fortifying forte-pianos, crazy crescendos all make the show a unique treat to listen to. The singing can be practically lacerating when the elder couple spars, no doubt deftly mixed by sound engineer Kirstin Johnson. The show runs for 90 minutes straight through, no intermission, but after hearing this score, audiences will crave more.
And then there are the incredible actors.
Tina Naponelli is a delight as Kat, the young bride-to-be. She is fun, flirty and fantastic, but brings real levels to her character, who is facing more dilemmas than she initially lets on. She is unafraid to match her fiance in energy and intent, a formidable duo despite the increasingly apparent fissures in their relationship. Naponelli’s nice vocals are bright but nuanced, sweet and striking, and she is a beautiful blender.
Neil Stratman is John, a young screenwriter, lothario, marijuana enthusiast and the guy who would once upon a time try and steal your girlfriend at a party by saying, “Anyway, here’s ‘Wonderwall.’”He is boisterous, breezy and wins most of the laughs the audience doles out. Though some choices and interpretations can skew a bit affected or mawkish, it can be justified if he’s crafted a character who has pumped himself full of artificial charisma, because he’s using it to mask his deep-seated reservations about the ultimate commitment. This is most apparent when he lets down his guard to sing a sensitive duet with his male counterpart about fatherhood. A raw vulnerability is on display in both men, in one of the show’s most compelling numbers.
Teressa LaGamba packs a lot of power behind her bespectacled and belabored demeanor. Her Catherine is full of warmth and acidity, torn between being a peace-maker and an aggressor, so hurt but so in love in spite of it all. Her best number comes when she pulls out a set of paintbrushes and reminisces about the art career she surrendered in favor of corporate success, about the stake she placed in her soon to be ex, Jack. Perhaps her performance has one derisive laugh too many, but isn’t that always the case in a failed marriage? Possessing a belt as strong as it is sensitive, LaGamba is wonderful to behold, particularly when interacting with her estranged husband.
Perhaps by design, and perhaps through sheer heartfelt interpretation, the standout (and because the caliber of talent in this cast is so high, only by a brief margin) is Carl Herzog as Jack. He could be considered the vocal lovechild of Michael Stipe and Brandon Urie, an intriguing sonic mix of jazz, pop and alternative sensibility that he utilizes to stunning effect. His Jack is full of resigned resentment, seemingly more at himself than of his wife, yet simultaneously full of nostalgia, regret, and a dying ember of love, still clinging to subtle smoldering. It is a joy to watch him work, the words he feels he needs floundering to get air behind his eyes, no sight of land.
Kokandy Productions routinely provides excellent, eclectic entertainment, but Tomorrow Morning breaks their routine of breaking routine. It possesses the same level of care and consideration as all their work, a deftly handled delight. If it appears pedestrian, it is decidedly more ponderous. Do people change? Can they? Will they? How did they get here? Where do they go from here? How can they fix this? Matt Groening famously quipped, “Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.” The ice weasels have come to claim these characters, but 90 minutes of watching them save themselves and one another from malicious Mustelidae will leave audiences in the Arctic feeling a warm arm wrapped around them.
Kokandy Productions presents “Tomorrow Morning” through August 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available online here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.