The opening of Anton Chekhov’s 1895 The Seagull? Actually, the first two acts of the new, poignant and entertaining country-western musical Songbird. Although you would not have predicted it, Chekhov’s archetypal plot of the young and ambitious pitted against the older and more famous works extremely well reset in a club in Nashville, Tennessee in Michael Kimmel’s book. Lauren Pritchard’s country-western score not only sounds like traditional songs in this genre but uses them to counterpoint the action all the way through. As all of the characters pick up guitars at one time or another to accompany themselves, the songs are either used as on stage performances or various jam sessions. Directed by JV Mercanti, Songbird is poignant and entertaining and knowing where the plot is going from a knowledge of The Seagull only adds to the emotion of the storyline.
Kate Baldwin (John & Jen, Giant, Big Fish, Finian’s Rainbow) as self-absorbed country western star Tammy Tripp gives a big bravura performance as a mother who resents her adult son as he gives away her real age. Adam Cochran as the young songwriter Dean (Konstantin in Chekhov) has just the right combination of confusion and frustration. As Mia (Nina), his girlfriend who wants to be a singer, Ephie Aardema is quite sweet as the impressionable young woman starting out who chooses to go on her own journey. Eric William Morris as successful songwriter now producer Beck Michaels (Boris Trigorin) offers rueful regret for the career he might have had.
As owner of the Nashville club, Bob Stillman gives strong support as Tammy’s dying brother Soren (Sorin) who is not going easily into that good night. As his bartender and manager Samuel (Shamrayev), Andy Taylor is given one terrific scene in which he speaks of his blessings, knowing full well the realities of his life. Erin Daly as a former country western back-up singer makes a great deal more of his wife Pauline (Paulina) than is usually the case in The Seagull. As their unhappy daughter Missy (Masha) obsessed with an oblivious Dean, Kacie Sheik (like Masha, always dressed in black) adds a note of real anger at her unrequited love to the mix. She does get to sing one dynamite number, “Cry Me a River,” a perfect name for a country-western song. As a former alcoholic desired by Pauline, Drew McVety brings a large dose of swagger to his Doc. In the small role of Rip (Semyon Medvedenko), Misty’s loyal follower, Don Guillory is suitably hangdog and oblivious to her disparagements.
The set by Jason Sherwood made of wood slats used for both Soren’s club and his farm is extremely effective, while it also suggests the Russian country dacha in Chekhov. Mark Koss is responsible for the pitch-perfect costuming for these Tennessee singer-songwriters. The subtle lighting is the fine work of Aaron Porter.
Songbird is not only an excellent Americanized version of the Chekhov classic but works beautifully in its own right. If it has any flaws, it is that it could use more ideas beyond its source material. Even though the plot will be familiar to those who know The Seagull, it is still a moving, engrossing musical experience. Incidentally, the bird that Dean accidentally kills here is a bluebird, more fitting for a Nashville story.
Songbird (extended through December 6, 2015)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission