By Barry Reszel
The poignant musical homage to mindfulness, living in the moment and, by extension, the theories behind cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies, Now. Here. This., is on stunning, simple display at Brown Paper Box Co.
The latest work by title of show creators Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell (book) with additional collaboration nods to Michael Berresse, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen and Larry Pressgrove and music and lyrics by Bowen is not quite a tos sequel, but close.
NHT follows four friends through their “museum day,” eschewing work for a journey through time—globally and personally. “Inspired by various exhibits (bees, reptiles, early man, ancient civilizations and outer space), the foursome shares their stories about friendship, hoarding, hiding, laughing, living, dying and middle school in an attempt to step directly into that elusive present moment,” says rnh.com.
The series of generally-heartwarming-but-too-disconnected vignettes and accompanying lovely songbook are wrapped around the philosophy of American Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton, a Kentucky Trappist monk, poet and social activist in the early to mid-20th Century. He, and the show’s title, are described in the work’s monologue:
“There was this monk, Thomas Merton, who said that if you can get to the intersection of Now: this moment in time; Here: exactly where you are; This: exactly what you’re doing. If you can get to the intersection of those three things, then there’s nothing to fear and you can really appreciate your life.”
The philosophically rich local production, Chicagoland’s first exposure to this 2012 musical that ran just 36 off-Broadway performances, is a bare-bones storefront presentation accentuated by projections onto three grade school portable movie screens, a couple benches and a handful of props. What the show lacks in panache and, most unfortunately, in plot, though, is more than made up for in flashes of tender brilliance in more a handful of scenes and genuinely exquisite ensemble and solo singing among the four-member cast throughout the entire, uninterrupted 95 minutes.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact ages of the young adult (thirtysomething?) character quartet and sometimes hard to believe these four are really friends. But putting these nits aside, the convention of pals enjoying a day at the museum on a field trip for grown-ups talking about their pasts, presents and futures is inimitably relatable. And the sweet voices of Neala Barron, Matt Frye, Anna Schutz and Nick Shoda allow these book issues to fade into yesterday.
In particular, ruminations on dazzle camouflage, life as a hoarder and most poignantly, grandmothers, are scene take-aways in this M. William Panek-directed piece. Spot-on harmonies, tantalizing duets and crystalline solos begin with “What Are the Odds,” the production’s opening quartet, all the way through the titular finale. “Members Only,” “Then Comes You,” and “This Time” are personal favorites.
The young quartet, three of whom starred in Brown Paper Box’s production of title of show last year, illustrate lovely onstage chemistry, and their newbie, Shoda, doesn’t miss a beat…or a note. Frye is extraordinarily likeable with future leading man presence. Barron can flip from “Let me help you” to “Don’t fuck with me” in the space of a double-take. And Schutz simply sings the daylights out of every song her dulcet voice approaches; her “This Time” is the most memorable of the bunch.
So too, the onstage cadre is backed up by another terrific professional quartet: Justin Harner conducting on keyboard; Conor Foley on guitar; Matt Ulm on bass; and Jon Levitt on drums.
As noted, there are reasons Now. Here. This. hasn’t had a professional Chicagoland showing until now. And its similarities to the writing team’s shortcomings in title of show make this reviewer believe Bowen ought to be finding new material from others to score.
And yet, that said, there’s every reason
To be present.
At this production.
For what it offers.
Brown Paper Box Co. presents “Now. Here. This” at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue, Chicago, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, through August 21. More information and tickets are available here.