Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Local Singles by Nick Navari, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger and Ariel Xiu. Read their bios at the end of the review, and read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
In Nick Navari’s debut musical Local Singles, a support group for the lonely acts as the catalyst and the witness to a series of major and minor life changes — pregnancy, break-ups, and miscarriage. The cheery veneer of Navari’s upbeat piano-driven pop songs works in conjunction with comical gags and heartwarming moments, but also creates an interesting dissonance with the more complex and tragic events that take place. Snappy dialogue and strong acting allow Local Singles to move swiftly through both inspired and muddled plot points as characters navigate the line between support and dependence.
Virtual curtains open. The camera, aided by a lively Steadicam, follows Penny (Sarah Chelli) as she paces around her bed. It’s night, and her boyfriend just walked out after she told him that she’s pregnant. There’s panic in her voice as she comes to accept her situation, singing, “it’s just you, it’s just me, and this pain.” Despite the panic, the music is uplifting, poppy, and oddly hopeful.
The lights brighten and Johnmichael Bohach’s excellent scenic design is revealed — a tall arc of chairs resembling a nest. There’s a sense of the magical in the set design, but it still reflects the back room, grassroots vibe of a YMCA community room, which is where the bulk of this 90ish minute musical takes place.
The support group is hosted by married couple Nancy (Sydnee Elder) and Richard (Seth Laidlaw). Prior to the beginning of the story, the only attendee of the meetings is Jack (Emmanuel Elliot Key), a young-ish man still reeling from a high school crush — his teacher. Wes (Adam Marino), recently single and looking to attend the “Hot Local Singles” meetup down the hall, arrives and Jack guilts him into staying at the decidedly not hot, nor cold “Local Singles” meeting. Penny arrives shortly after Wes, and the team is assembled.
Navari, who wrote the book, lyrics and score structures the musical as a series of scenes that build to a song. Each scene/song combo delves into the characters’ hopes, desires, and fears. We get a good amount of backstory — except for Richard, who is given a heartwarming speech near the end—which allows the cast to define their characters, map out their emotional extremes, and play with nuance. While most scenes take place in the same location — the YMCA room — there is care to build in a memorable prop or formation to keep scenes from blurring into each other. There’s a great sequence with multiple mirrors reflecting characters at different angles and viewpoints. Another moment finds everyone sitting on cajons banging out the rhythm track while discussing their pasts.
As strangers turn into friends, lives begin to intertwine. Nancy, good at noticing details about people — think Pittsburgh’s J.B. Fletcher but without the murders — introduces exercises designed to let characters open up. She presents Jack with “Morgan,” a rough likeness of a woman made from supply closet items, to practice his conversation skills. Soon after, Penny and Wes grow their relationship outside of the group by having a date at a coffee shop.
The jokes are family-friendly. There are stabs at absurdity — our group is somehow locked into a six-year agreement with YMCA for this room, and Penny steps outside of the show on a few occasions to notice that everyone is singing, commenting, “Wow, you guys sing a lot, don’t you” and “a little too musical theater-y for my tastes.” While watching, I theorized that the entire musical was a fever dream that Penny was having during the pregnancy, but there wasn’t enough evidence for that to be the case.
Two-thirds through the musical, Penny and Wes break up. There isn’t an explosive confrontation, but a slow realization that Wes is in this relationship partly for the wrong reasons. Penny understands that the foundation of their relationship is partly built on the fact that her circumstances are less than ideal, that she is pregnant without a partner, and that Wes is filling up his own emptiness with his noble pursuit of being there for Penny. He’s a nice guy, but he is playing savior to someone who doesn’t need saving. He wears his goodness as a badge.
Their breakup is the realest moment of the musical. You can visibly see both characters melt when the realization that their relationship is over sets in. Chelli and Marino, their bodies slump, muscle turns soft, a light goes out. It’s a fantastic scene.
This interaction unveils a theme in Local Singles. Yes, the group is supportive of each other; they prop each other up when someone is feeling low; they look for solutions to problems together. But there is a co-dependency running through many of the relationships. It’s not as intense as a relationship involving drugs or abuse, but the shades of unhealthy dependencies within Penny and Wes’s relationship are echoed elsewhere.
Let’s talk about Jack. First, Emmanuel Eliot Key is a joy to watch. Key is responsible for many of the energy upticks in the musical, providing a lankily graceful fluidity of movement that is surprising and fun. At one point he jumps over a bench. If I remember correctly, he also jumps over Richard. Key uses the stage well, allowing his slightly manic energy and sheer physicality to extend the dimensions of the small YMCA room.
Jack’s quest is to find a wife. One attempt to finding a wife involves making a bench, placing the bench in the park, waiting for someone to sit on it and read his name off a mounted plaque. His rationale, told during a light-hearted acapella riff, is to inform his future wife that, “you don’t even know me, but I’m already taking care of you.” His argument for this relationship is that he will be a caregiver of sorts, someone to depend on. It resembles snaring someone in a trap, and in looking specifically for a wife, Jack has designated a role for someone to play. Yes, he’s looking for stability, but his request asks someone to lock into a predefined stasis with him.
That this neatly-defined relationship will resolve his emptiness is an immature outlook, but there is good reason for that. Cue Janice.
Jack has a tattoo that reads “Janice.” It’s an ode to his high school teacher that he still loves in a romantic sense. Funnily (right?), Nancy’s real name is Janice. As it turns out, Nancy, the coordinator of the support group, is Janice, the high school teacher.
There is a three to four minute period where the audience thinks that the person that has been leading these healing exercises (and basically pushing the plot of the musical forward) had a relationship with an underage student. The question arises, is Janice guilty of sexual abuse? These fears are quickly resolved when it turns out that Janice was oblivious to Jack’s feelings while Jack was in high school, and Jack’s feelings are just feelings.
But now, new questions arise. Why is this support group a public group if for months the only people that met were Nancy/Janice, Richard, and Jack, all with the purpose are trying to help Jack navigate and move past his longings for Janice? During that time, why would Nancy not be called Janice if everyone knows she is Janice? There’s also mention of Nancy covering Jack’s “Janice” tattoo annually. This temporary suppression of a complex problem suggests that Janice also doesn’t want this situation to change, that for whatever reason, she is dependent on this group continuing. The Janice/Jack subplot did add some spice, but overall it left a lot of questions that pecked at the foundation of the musical’s world. Maybe these questions would have clearer answers with a second viewing.
Nearing the end of the musical, we come full circle. The YMCA village had prepared to raise this child together, but a hole in its heart leads to the baby’s death during childbirth. The group once again picks up the pieces of a tragedy and bands together to move forward. Penny reprises the opening song, albeit in a much different context, and announces, “I’m starting over.”
Local Singles is an accessible, tightly-constructed, professionally-produced work. Aside from the occasional Steadicam shot, the virtual version of this musical presents like a filmed stage production in its neutrality, leaving excitement and energy to originate from the cast, the songs, and the story. The musical holds a consistent note, a pleasantness, throughout its runtime, occasionally investigating different avenues — the absurd, the self-aware, the ecstatic — offering a few twists and turns, but always coming back to the core of the show — its ability to express nuanced emotions in the face of fear, hope, and tragedy. These moments — Penny and Wes’s breakup and the closing scene — elevate the work, providing points where the audience can sympathize, associate, and join in hoping for a better tomorrow.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.