By Quinn Rigg
Human desire is a powerful and relentless force. Desire drives humanity to seek more and strive for survival—it’s a primal need hardwired in our nature.
But what happens if our inexorable desire craves something destructive? How does one overcome the force of our human nature? Marriott Theatre offers a tender and honest answer to this query with Daniel Zaitchik’s new musical Darling Grenadine. From the charming quips to the tragic losses, Zaitchik’s book, music and lyrics ensnare the sublime within tableaus of day-to-day life.
Poignant and inventive, Darling Grenadine dazzles with its ingenuity, its heart and its candor. A struggling alcoholic, a brother and a dog with the same name, and an anxious actress set the stage for this brilliant new work. Darling Grenadine comes to the Marriott after its New York conception in 2017; it follows the life of Harry, a successful jingle writer who continually struggles with his addictive tendencies. The charming opening number tunefully lulls the audience into a false sense of security, as Harry sings of falling in love with Louise, a Broadway chorus girl who’s afraid of the limelight.
The two find crackling chemistry with one another, yet slowly over the course of the first act, glimpses of Harry’s alcoholism turn into blatant displays of toxic dysfunctionality. We see functional alcoholism devolve into chaotic, crippling addiction—every lie Harry tells himself permeates into each thread of his life, corroding the foundation of his relationships. Harry’s dog, Paul (masterfully puppeteered by Phillip Huber), gets sick as a result of Harry’s neglect; Harry’s brother Paul (powerfully portrayed by Nick Cosgrove) struggles to cope with his brother’s addiction; and Louise leaves her love for her own well being. Left with nothing, Harry sits with his songs, and over the course of a year, finishes a first draft and sobers up, reconciling with a now-married Louise. The musical ends on a beautiful swell of music as we anticipate what Harry’s future will hold with his continuing recovery.
Darling Grenadine’s story is both perilous and incredibly hopeful, and its life-affirming message is scored by severely catchy, brilliantly layered music. Zaitchik has composed fake pop hits and an entirely fabricated Broadway musical revival as framing devices within Darling Grenadine. This inventive choice allows for a myriad of genres that enrich the world of the musical with different styles to accompany and inform the drama.
Director and choreographer Aaron Thielen creates an immersive theatrical experience with the production’s in-the-round staging. Set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec adaptively conforms to the needs of any scene, and stylized projection screens overhanging the stage’s perimeter change to beautifully designed sets of varying weather and times of day. Thielen capitalizes on Kmiec’s design with vigor and discovery. The stages perimeter turns into city streets along which the actors meander, the two-person ensemble occupies restaurants and bars, Paul the dog mills about Harry’s apartment. The stage is constantly alive, whether with snappy choreography or with subtle conversation.
Music direction by Ryan T. Nelson brings the magic of this score to life. Tight musical cues and dynamically robust underscoring to Harry’s life are effortlessly imbued into the play by an incredible band, led by Patti Garwood on Keyboard.
The cast of seven is a tight-knit team of astounding skill and storytelling prowess. Heath Saunders’ voice is resonant bliss, and his facility on piano is as deft as his sparkling riffs. Saunders manifests Harry’s journey to recovery with such hunger, honesty, and vigor that sympathy is nigh undeniable to him. Just as Harry effortlessly charms everyone into his life, Saunders takes the audience by the hand and whirls them across the room with passion and flare.
Katherine Thomas shatters hearts with her masterful performance as Louise, endearing the world with her quirky humor, and striking it with awe with her sonorous voice. The “show within a show” concept is a tricky framing device to handle, but Thomas proves she is a star in both frames. Her comedic timing is priceless, and her switching of roles—from “Louise” to “performer”—is seamless.
Nick Cosgrove’s performance as Paul (the human) is a perfect foil for Saunders’ Harry. Honest and reserved, Cosgrove sheds light on the world of a grieving family. Through his convincing justifications and desperate pleading, Cosgrove elicits sympathy for a real person struggling to hold on to the things that hurt him.
The puppetry of Paul (the dog) is complete craftsmanship at the hands of Huber. Tail wags, ear perks, and the realistic sound of a happy paws clacking on wooden floors manifest a very real and very lovable presence.
Trumpet Player Mike Nappi provides a voice to Harry’s woes and to his dog. The muted trumpet becomes an artful symbol of Harry’s connection to those around him, and in Nappi’s hands, it is a blissful symphony.
Though humanity is compelled by its desire, Darling Grenadine demonstrates desire doesn’t have to hurt. Zaitchik turns the binding tourniquet of addiction into a cathartic symphony, one that allows passion and delight to exist alongside immense struggle. Despite the destruction left in the wake of an irrepressible desire, healing is still possible. Healing is always possible. Marriott Theatre has produced something truly special—something irreplaceably powerful and indescribably beautiful.
Marriott Theatre presents “Darling Grenadine” through August 18 at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. Tickets and more information may be found here. Photos by Liz Lauren.