Memory is a tricky part of consciousness since it does not always align with reality. This aspect becomes even more problematic when a story of an individual’s life is told. Whether biography or autobiography, choices are made as to which memories are important and which are not, and those choices can make or break the story being told. In the case of Bliss Street, the choices do more breaking than making, and for me, the show doesn’t work.
Bliss Street is a memory play set to music. The book is by Abra Bigham, with concept and story by Rich Brotman and Charlie Sub. The music and lyrics are by Sub. Under the direction of Lissa Moira, it tells the story of how the iconic punk rock and glam rock club The Coventry came into existence and the people who played a role in its creation.
The story opens with a production number in a present-day club, Ethyl’s, an Upper Eastside venue dedicated to the music of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Our guide introduces herself as Ethyl (Marlain Angelides), the spirit of the new club. Marlain creates a believable character and provides solid vocals to the show. Ethyl starts her narration by telling us who the main characters are and that she will guide us through the events surrounding the creation of The Coventry and ending with Ethyl’s Alcohol and Food.
After the opening number, we meet Paul Sub (Jef Canter) and his son Charlie (Blaize Adler-Ivanbrook) in Paul’s luncheonette, The Zodiac. This establishing scene shows us Paul as an altruistic optimist trying to figure out how to keep his business running and Charlie, his fourteen-year-old son, who has dreams of becoming a drummer in a rock band.
Soon after, we meet the third member of the Sub family, Mina (Alyson Reim), Charlie’s mother, at the family’s apartment. Mina is a pivotal character in the play. She is the steadying influence in Paul’s life and a gentle guide to Charlie. She is the one who supports all of Paul’s wild ideas, even his newest one, which arrives on the heels of the failure of The Zodiac. The new venture is a liquor store on the Upper Eastside with an apartment above it. Mina’s sisters, Goldie(Amelia Sasson), Helen (Alisa Ermolaev), and Berta (Sarah MacDonnell), refer to the neighborhood as a gangster place. It is unclear whether this business was successful, but it was problematic for Paul.
After Paul is robbed at gunpoint in the store, he comes up with a new business idea. He decides to transform an old Irish pub in Queens into a modern rock club. After naming it The Popcorn Pub, he changes it to The Coventry. And it came at a pivotal time in rock and roll. It was the beginning of the glam rock and punk rock period. Iconic bands played there, like KISS, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Blondie, Sam & Dave, The Dictators, and Elephant’s Memory.
The Coventry was also a life-changing time for Charlie because he had formed a band, and they were trying to get recognized. He thought his father would allow him to perform at the club. Unfortunately, it was not to be, so Charlie, feeling his creative ambitions being restrained, left New York City for Los Angles to try to make a success with his music. His band had broken up due to the emotional breakdown of his front man Cliff (Thomas Deen Baker).
Act II opens with Charlie traveling to LA. Charlie’s time in LA was not productive toward his musical dreams, but he finds success in renovating houses and selling them. Sometime in 1974, Cliff shows up at Charlie’s apartment. He tells him that The Coventry has closed and tells him about his life since his breakdown. Then, he starts to sing a song about it called “Riverhead.” Baker’s performance of this song and of “Crazy Feeling” from Act 1 are two of the best in the show.
Ultimately, Charlie decides to return to New York. But, unfortunately, his plan to restart his band, The Pits, doesn’t happen because Cliff has had another serious breakdown. In a scene after his return, Mina tells him about his parents’ escape from Europe before World War II and how they ended up in New York City. The show winds down and ends with Charlie’s 25th birthday party, translating into a celebration at Ethyl’s.
There are issues in nearly all aspects of the show. The choreography by Sage Buchalter is mediocre in execution and lacks a strong focus. The sound design by the board operator Franklyn Rodriguez is unbalanced, with the music mixes and vocals too loud or soft. Some vocals are off-key, and others are pitchy. The sound is center focused, as may be expected in a concert hall.
Lytza Colón & Mark Mercante’s set design is a mix of physical elements and projections. While projections are a way of defining a set, it does not work well here. The depictions of the interior of the Ethyl’s club don’t convey a sense of an actual club. Other images projected to show details of the periods, such as garbage on the streets or burning buildings, are distracting. The physical sets are minimal, with suggestions of the area where the action takes place, while the projections do not fill in the necessary detail.
The main issue with this show is the lack of clarity in the book. Who is the play about, the father or the son? Act I is primarily a story about Paul Sub and his business ventures leading up to the creation of The Coventry. Act II is more about Charlie Sub and how his father’s business decisions impacted Charlie’s life. In both cases, the story’s elements need to be restructured to make it more compelling. Does it matter what type of romantic relationship Charlie develops in LA? Did Paul’s liquor store fail after the robbery? The book needs to be edited to define clearly which story is being told and to eliminate the scenes that do not advance the story.
One final note, Charlie Sub & Sound Dogs, with some supplemental musicians, perform an excellent job with the score, but as is the case with most musicals, some songs work, and some don’t. However, one of the problems with the delivery of the songs is the lack of good sound mixing. The strength and quality of a number of them are lost because either the lyrics are overwhelmed by the music or the presentation is slightly off-key or pitchy. I listened to four songs used in the show that were performed by the core band over the past five years, and those performances were much better than what is heard in the play. I believe the reason was the integration of the singer with the band.
Bliss Street (through May 20, 2023)
Theater for the New City
Johnson Theatre, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission