Written by artistic director Drew Petersen with music and lyrics by Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, the musical is conceived as taking place in a club with a bouncer stamping hands at the door to let in the patrons. Although we are told by Wilhelm Hensel (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), the narrator and later the husband of composer Fanny Mendelssohn, the story begins in 1821, television commentator Victoria Grillplatzer (Jocelyn Mackenzie) of Channel 5 News interviews Abraham (Jason Vance), father of Fanny and Felix, and makes clear his conservative views in the style of a 1980’s news broadcast.
We meet his children the talented Fanny (Natalie Mack) and Felix (Jake Roa) who are both taking music lessons and consider themselves a duo. However, when Fanny plays for her parents’ guests, she is informed that this is not ladylike. Neither her father Abraham nor her mother Lea (Grace Galu) gives her any encouragement while they set up a meeting with the Big Man, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for her brother. Felix goes on to bigger and better things and becomes a rock star while at the same time holding back his sister’s career.
Lea introduces Fanny to artist Hensel who she eventually marries, although brother Felix on his world tour declines to return for the wedding. Hensel is supportive of her musical aspirations and she plays one public concert which is panned by the male critics so that she never performs in public again. Over a century later the Easter Sonata turns up and is declared a masterpiece. It is first attributed to Felix but is later found to have been written by Fanny. It finally receives its world premiere on March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day.
Intended for young people and their families, the jokey dialogue will amuse teenagers as well as teach them about the glass ceiling that talented women have had to fight against up until the present. The characters make clever reference to such modern music stars as Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Berry Gordy, Hall & Oates, while older patrons will recognize the names of earlier music titans Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. Among Townsend’s clever devices are choosing members of the audience to play additional characters, and using empty picture frames held up to people’s faces as stand-ins for Hensel’s portraits.
Five of the six performers also make up the band while all are also the vocalists for the 13 musical numbers; Petersen himself joins in on drums, guitar, synthesizer and voice. Only two snatches of music by Fanny are heard in the course of the show while the other songs have an animated pop-rock sound; Fanny gets one ballad that is more in the style of folk-rock. With the cast always playing to their spectators, the audience is asked to clap along during one of the numbers. The colorful uncredited costumes run the gamut of conservative suits to sequined tops and patterned prints, faithful to the 1980’s milieu.
Four of the talented cast play multiple roles while Mack and Roa continue to play only Fanny and Felix, respectively. The score is fresh and lively and should please both young people as well as adults; the lyrics are meaningful and lyrical without sacrificing anything to the rock ambiance. Adults may find the storyline a bit rushed at only 75 minutes but The Mendelssohn Electric is not only enjoyable but educational, clearly making its point about the struggle that women have had being taken seriously in music. Next up in The Electric Doyenne trilogy is The Gospel Electric about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, scheduled for the same venue in December 2019.
The Mendelssohn Electric (December 20 – 29, 2018)
Trusty Sidekick Theater Company
Veterans Room, Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5912 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission