Virginia Stage Company's "I Sing the Rising Sea" is audacious, but lacks focus
By Mal Vincent
From its production announcement over a year ago, “I Sing the Rising Sea” has faced an identity problem.
The new work, part of the Virginia Stage Company’s American Soil Series, became known as “the climate change musical.” As it turns out, that wasn’t quite right. The play begins about 80 years ago at Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, just a few miles from the Goode Theater where it staged its premiere last week. Some of it occurs in the present day, and then it skips along to 2047 and ends, sort of, in Antarctica in “the dry valleys” which, we are told, resemble Mars. There are feverish stops in New York, Washington and a radiation-strifed Japan.
The play does examine the threat of sea level rise, but it lacks urgency and the dramatic conflict that might propel the story. The impact is diminished by a lack of focus.
It’s all over the place, but the audacity of it all is diverting. This is the very definition of “epic,” for it covers multiple generations, from African American Granby Collins, whose father has lost his house to the seas off Ocean View, to a descendant, also named Granby, who is researching the ancient ices of Antarctica. There is place-dropping and name-dropping galore. Excess is both this show’s attraction and threat.
We meet a white female flagpole sitter at Ocean View in 1933 who makes friends with a young Granby. The historic local “Storm of 1933” ruins her pole-sitting quest, and Granby helps her out of a jam. In 1933, the park is segregated, but she makes a pact with him that he go to Columbia University. It seems an easy choice. The flagpole sitter wants to become a famous architect and automatically does. No real drama.
The play features two or three cultural-clash and East-vs.-West romances involving the Granby men.
Among the more unlikely, and largely pointless, digressions is the introduction of the famed writer and poet Langston Hughes, who becomes a friend of the Norfolk youth and quotes a few lines of poetry. This allows Anthony Mark Stockard, the head of the theater department at Norfolk State University, to sing “Lonesome Weary Blues” (the song that got the best audience response) plus a song about atoms.
After intermission, Emperor Hirohito stops by for a song. Jackie Robinson pops up. As do Pearl Harbor, the battleship Missouri and race relations and civil rights concerns in America. It feels like merely touching bases. Global warming is often left cooling.
The score, composed with often touching lyrics by Eric Schorr, is good – one we’d like to hear more of, and hear it expanded to orchestral treatment. Some of the 22 songs come across as sound bites rather than fully developed songs but still are quite good. Schorr makes each of them serve a dramatic mood.
The composer has done local homework throughout – right down to ordering a strawberry shake from Doumar’s.
The ensemble, which includes six Equity pros and three local youngsters, fares well. Rona Figueroa has a spunky stage presence. Charles Browning aptly fills in the family tree as Granby Jr. Betsy Dilellio does better as the young flagpole sitter than she does in aging makeup as the stuffy architect. Alan Ariano is an ingratiating singer as Hirohito.
Director Chris Hanna obviously relishes the newness of this project and the value of taking risks like this to put the Virginia Stage Company on the map. This is the type of programming that draws the attention of Tony voters for regional theaters.
“I Sing the Rising Sea” is out of control in conventional ways, but it’s the kind of adventure that live theater should be – making us wonder what outlandish turn it will next take. The daring, and Schorr’s music, make it worth a ticket.