‘Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir’ tries hard, but is mostly off-key

Sometimes you go to a show expecting one thing, and walk out with a completely different experience. This was absolutely the case with Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir, The Ruckes Theatre’s first musical effort. I went in expecting campy, clever and slightly macabre. Instead, I got bland, bloated and convoluted.

That’s not to say this isn’t an admirable effort. The premise is unique (a group of choir boys in 18th century Austria plot to escape their diabolical choir master before they’re castrated — or worse) and Jason Rico’s score has loads of promise. Clearly, this group has jumped into the musical genre with both feet, and I applaud them for that. However, the execution falls flat, and the thing overstays its welcome by about 45 minutes.

The biggest problem stems from the play’s decidedly non-linear storytelling. In taking such an approach, scenes should be arranged in a way that details are revealed to complete a compelling picture. Here, it seems someone shuffled the script’s pages around randomly and decided to keep it that way. Things are talked about, and then scenes follow that play out what we just heard about 10 minutes prior — no new information is revealed. Redundancy and a lack of narrative focus weigh this production down. Particularly in act two, where the story just seems to run off the tracks…and then…ends?

The eager cast, which features females playing choir boys, tries very hard. However, for the most part, they’re in way over their heads. Particularly the otherwise talented Kate Black, who plays star choir boy, Johanne. I’ve been impressed with Ms. Black’s work in other things, but here she’s lost, and more than struggles with the singing.

One cast member did rise to Rico’s occasionally challenging score, and that’s Sarah Bockel, who plays a mysterious love interest to Johanne in act one, and a witch of some sort in act two (btw: there’s a lot of strange mysticism and dream sequences in this play that muddy up the story). However, Ms. Bockel’s curiously only given a half a song in act one, and her scene in act two, where she confronts Johanne, practically screams for a showstopper. But nope. One of the many frustrating points of the evening.

The good: the band of four, under the direction of Charles Worth, sounds great, lighting by Christine Grodecki is quite accomplished and atmospheric considering the venue’s cramped quarters, and Nick Shaw’s set design shows promise.

I look forward to The Ruckus Theatre’s next effort, because it seems they enjoy taking risks and committing to them 110%. And, looking at their press materials, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. I like that.

I just didn’t like this production.

I’m trying something new for 2011 — a CTA Index Rating. I’m going to rate each show on a ten-point scale. This way, I will be able to more effectively track my theatre-going habits and history.

CTA Index Rating: 4 (Points given for taking a risk and playing it out with gusto.)

“Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir” plays through Jan. 30 at the Side Project, 439 W Jarvis Ave. More info here >

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