Vices: A Love Story at Caldwell Theatre dives into obsession

Vices begins with a sexy dance and a hard funk-rock instrumental that is leaner, meaner, weirder, and more modern than any bit of music I've ever heard played on Caldwell Theatre's big stage. Watching those dancers, hearing that noise, it seems obvious that Caldwell's new artistic director, Clive Cholerton, is a hip young rebel out to drag the venerable-but-fusty company in strange new directions.

Then the singers enter, and their squeaky-clean harmonies, lifted straight from the official Jon Larson Playbook of Fake Rock Bombast, demand a reappraisal of the situation. The opening number, "What If," is God-awful. It is maudlin and familiar to the point of invisibility, the precise average of every musical-rock ditty you've ever heard. "Now the only thing I'm certain of is this uncertainty," sings the cast, following a melody line that for no discernible reason rises triumphantly on the last syllable. It's terrible. We want to leave.

Then, moments later, we're giggling happily at Natalie Venetia Belcon's desperate, soulful ode to tobacco, "Do You Mind If I Smoke?"

It is here, two songs and one instrumental into the evening, that Vices' infuriating central contradiction becomes apparent. An investigation of the various cravings that intrude upon our collective consciousness, Vices is alternately vicious, clichéd, and novel. It maintains none of these moods for more than five or six minutes at a time and seldom combines them. It is the kind of concoction that comes out of a kitchen containing a few too many cooks. In this cakes, the cooks' names are AC Ciulla (choreographer) and Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid, Susan Draus, and Everett Bradley, all of whom are either writers, lyricists, or composers, and it would be interesting to see a breakdown of exactly who did what.

At least three and maybe four brilliant minds are at work here, but you're left wondering who's responsible for lame, almost meaningless fluff like "What If" and the similar "Fly." Happily, numbers like these are in the minority, and without them, Vices would have been almost perfect.

As it is, it is merely very, very good. Vices is plotless: a series of discrete little musical vignettes, threaded together by the multidisciplinary dancing of the supremely hot Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey. The degree to which the vignettes cohere as narratives varies from piece to piece. "Johnny," sung by Lara Janine, is a torchy, forlorn love song. Janine is simply there, at a corner of the stage, singing her ode to "Johnny" — a muse who turns out to be less of a man than you'd hope. For all its simplicity, the piece is supremely theatrical. Janine, a young and bubbly little actress, has a voice more textured and full of jazzy darkness than you might expect from such a teensy little blond girl, and here it seems as though that darkness has taken hold of her body. Through some contortion of limbs and shoulders and neck, Janine ages before your eyes, and her singing becomes that of a crone whose love took everything she had and left her with nothing but rusty vocal cords and rueful wisdom, helpless to kill her cravings but smart enough to know they've wrecked her.

"Johnny" is sublime, and Vices becomes even more so when the actors, composers, and writers translate "Johnny" 's bone-honest approach into big production numbers. There is a piece in here, "Type A," about the love of money and addiction to work. The singers and dancers are suddenly all stockbrokers, or so it seems, and when they're not singing frantic odes to long hours and hard work, they are providing a rhythm track by chanting "ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker." This is musical onomatopoeia: The off-kilter rhythm actually seems timed to the action of a ticker tape. Against that jerky beat, harmonies soar and slide like somebody's hapless portfolio.

At its best, this is what Vices does: Through sound and movement, it drags the visceral realities of obsession into the theatrical space. During a song about TV addiction, Bellamy and Shunkey become boneless little rag dolls, slumped near the back of the stage against a backdrop that suddenly resembles a tacky, paisley couch. The dancers are dressed in precisely the same pattern, and they seem to have melded with the furniture. Up front, the singers' voices flatten out, until their water-clear harmonies break apart into the dead hiss of white noise. Brain death.

In the play's most compelling moment, the object of desire is desire itself, to give yourself to something and disappear within it. Slick-voiced Leajoto Amara Robinson does an elaborate step routine, slinking around the stage like a kitty cat and subtly coming on to the audience. "Some like it," he sings, over and over again, almost winking — he seems to be saying, "And I bet you like it too." And we do. Whatever it is.

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Brandon K. Thorp