What does melancholy actually mean? Sad? Mournful? Pensive? All three?
It’s a question the cast of Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical has been mulling over for weeks while preparing for theatre Kapow’s production at the Derry Opera House April 28 through May 6.
“It’s not depression. It’s melancholy. It’s a different state,” said actress Candace Gatzoulis during a recent rehearsal. “This idea of melancholy has been really, really hard for me to put my finger on. How can you explore sadness without deep sadness?”
The topic’s at the center of Sarah Ruhl’s piece, first presented in 2002 at the Piven Theatre in Illinois as a straight play until composer Todd Almond set it to music in 2012. It follows a melodramatic bank teller, Tilly, whose melancholy causes every stranger she meets to fall in love with her — until one day, when she becomes inexplicably happy, wreaking havoc on her friends’ lives. Her hairdresser, Francis, delves into such a deep state of melancholy she turns into an almond.
“I think the play deals with the concept of happiness in an interesting way. I think that word always has a positive connotation, but I think we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve been a little resentful of someone else’s happiness, and I think this play articulates that really well,” said Jimmy Stewart, who plays Frank.
Yes, the play contains elements of absurdity. At one point, there’s a physical fight over a vial of Tilly’s tears. But at its core is profound truthfulness, which is what drew actress Emily Karel to the show.
“Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. I wanted to audition, even though I hadn’t been in a musical in a really long time,” Karel said. “She has a unique way of expressing a feeling or a state of being with her language, and this musical, I think more than a traditional musical, feels very intimate. There’s a rawness, a beauty and vulnerability that I think audiences will appreciate.”
The text didn’t change at all while transitioning from a play to a musical. The only difference is that now, some of the lines — particularly the emotionally charged ones — are sung instead of spoken. There’s a lot of depth in plot and character, which can be difficult to translate while singing.
“To be in an emotionally conflicted state … and then sing is quite a challenge to me because I haven’t done it in such a long time,” said Wayne Asbury, who plays Lorenzo. “Usually when you’re in that state of sadness [on stage], you’re able to sink into yourself. And singing requires you to do the opposite, to really open up and share that with the audience.”
Theatre Kapow, whose Season 9 theme is “Hear, Here,” typically tackles straight plays, no music. But the board liked Melancholy Play and felt that to do it justice, they’d need to go with the chamber musical, which isn’t performed often because of its difficulty; you need to find people who can sing, and hold their own in five-part harmonies.
They found Stewart (Frank), Asbury (Lorenzo), Sheree Owens (Joan), Gatzoulis (Tilly) and Karel (Frances). Musical director is Blake Leister, and performing alongside the group is the New Hampshire Philharmonic string quartet.
Melancholy Play was never on Broadway or off-Broadway, and so there was little to go on beforehand. All the production elements are new theatre Kapow interpretations. Theatre Kapow director and cofounder Matt Cahoon said this version is stripped down, taking place on the Derry Opera House floor within a 17-foot-by-17-foot square that, over the course of the show, transforms into a therapist’s office, a tailor shop, an apartment. He thinks audiences will relate to the characters and the messages about depression and melancholy.
“A lot of this show is about kind of recognizing when people are in a bad way or a tough place, and doing what [you can] do to support them and take care of them,” Cahoon said.