For the first 25 minutes, the bushy red-bearded, receding with flowing hair Mr. Butler appears solo performing a series of his delightful songs. Butler superbly plays the banjo, guitar and harmonica as he conveys a Cat Stevens, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan vibe. Then the ensemble joins him for a serious and light-hearted tuneful enactment.
His narration imparts the show’s premise. It’s 300 years from now and the United States is divided into authoritarian regions and after being part of a rebellious faction Rags was exiled to a labor colony on Mars. The presentation is a memory reunion concert peopled by him and his compatriots who were androids that were later dismantled by the authorities. These include his great love, the fiery Beaux Weathers. Butler beautifully conveys the sadness of ultimately being left alone with aching wistfulness.
Butler’s quirky concept is pleasurably realized by the intense efforts of the ensemble and the accomplished technical team that inspires engagement even without high-tech trappings. The three-sided small-scale arena playing area has a contained raised rectangular platform for much of the presentation that’s the minimalist handiwork of scenic designer Laura Jellinek. Barbara Samuels’ creative lighting design ranges from varying shades of spotlights to illustrative brightness and dramatic red hues. Sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman achieves aesthetic modulation. The cast is artfully clothed by costume designer Andy Jean who crafts basic jeans, vests and shirts into an array that all cleverly suggests the future.
Director Jordan Fein’s polished staging combines straightforward musical performance sequences with energetic flourishes. These have the cast parading through the audience and placed with variety that commandingly assists in telling the tale.
Stacey Sargeant is dynamic as Beaux with her powerful vocals and soulful presence. The rest of the company includes Rick Burkhardt, Tony Jarvis, Jessie Linden and Debbie Christine Tjong. They all play instruments with virtuosity while vividly appearing as other characters.
Like the best of sci-fi, Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future has thoughtful allusions to the present while being wonderfully entertaining.
Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future (extended through November 10, 2018)
Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit arsnovanyc.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission