Love, in all its many forms — lust, desire, loss, and longing among them — is up against it in Michael John LaChiusa’s “Hello Again.” Whether the problems are societal, egotistical, or simply a matter of the stars crossing in an ill-timed pattern, love is rarely a match for simple human frailty. More often than not, its powers are overwhelmed by the brute force of sex. As for the lovers themselves, they have about as much control over their hearts’ desires as you or I have over the weather.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial turn-of-the-century play “La Ronde,” “Hello Again” is a series of 10 interlocking vignettes that follow a string of lovers as they fall in love, hold disastrous affairs, and watch their most cherished relationships crumble before their eyes. But LaChiusa adds another layer: Each scene takes in a different 20th century decade. The characters and their relationships stay the same, but the societal context shifts. This time-hopping mode also allows LaChiusa to sample music from across the century, from disco to doo wop to ragtime to new wave. The show is one of his earliest — it premiered Off Broadway in 1993 — and there’s a youthful energy to it that’s unmistakable. It wants to show off all the wonderful things that it can do.
That youthfulness makes “Hello Again” a natural fit for Theo Ubique, a company that has built its brand on casting young, hungry musical theater actors and gives them a chance to show their stuff. This production, from director and choreographer Brenda Didier, makes a compelling case for the company’s model, while unwittingly arguing against it as well.
The scenes go in the following order: 1900, 1940s, ’60s, ’30s, ’50s, 1912 (three guesses as to what happens in that one), ’70s, ’20s, ’80s, and ’90s (also known as “the present”). Per “La Ronde,” the characters have names but are identified by their archetypes: The Soldier, The Whore, The College Boy, The Young Wife, etc. The first scene concerns a brief assignation between a soldier (Christopher Ratliff) and a prostitute (Megan Elk), while the second rockets the soldier forward to the 1940s where he enjoys a brief, pre-deployment tryst with a nurse (Nora Navarro).
In the third scene, set in the early ’60s, the nurse is now tending to spoiled, smitten college boy (Nik Kmiecik) upon whom she decides to take some mild revenge for her previous ill-treatment at the hands of the soldier. This pattern continues on, with one character handing off the baton to the next, until the final scene returns to The Whore, this time enjoying the much more pleasant company of a closeted queer senator (Courtney Jones).
By switching from World War II to the escalating conflict in Vietnam, LaChiusa frames the nurse’s romantic revenge within a larger societal shift. It’s the dawn of the 60’s feminist revolution and a woman is taking back control. But after that, the changes in decade become mostly cosmetic, with the urge for musical experimentation winning out over the need for sociological insight. LaChiusa’s twisty song stylings are worth it, though. Even as he hopscotches from genre to genre, his melodies remain deviously brilliant. While traditional songs enter through the front door, his tunes smash in the rear window.
LaChiusa’s music sounds even better in the hands of Didier’s cast, several of whom pack powerhouse pipes that could fill houses far larger than Theo Ubique’s pleasingly intimate cabaret. Under Jeremy Ramey’s musical direction, Elk, Navarro and Neala Barron (who plays The Actress) all bring showstopping vocal might to their numbers, tapping into the play’s more operatic elements (minus all the fussiness that accompanies a proper opera).
Where the performances roundly fall flat is in the physicality — although they are rarely done any favors by Didier’s dutiful, often unsure staging. For a show in which characters are falling into the throes of passion with clockwork regularity — and making stops at all the bases on their way back to home plate — the actors’ hesitant bodies betray them. It doesn’t help that Didier is too often mashing them up against one another or letting them squirm awkwardly about the space.
“Hello Again” remains an invigorating tour through the nine stations of romance, but it could benefit from a more mature perspective. The kids are alright, certainly, they just have some growing up to do.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.