Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

At a recent National Press Club luncheon, Cathy Rigby—that 52-year-old boy who won’t grow up—related a story about a performance of Peter Pan in which her entreaty “Say quick that you believe!” was met with silence. Tinker Bell’s life, not to mention the dramatic momentum, was at stake. The performers held their breath. Then, from the middle of the audience, a small voice piped up, “Well, I believe!” and the fairy kingdom was saved once more.

Nowhere in the theater is belief—or, as the old saying has it, willing suspension of disbelief—harder to sustain than in the musical. We demand that our actors transport us to another world and introduce us to people whose fates we’re supposed to care about—and we want them to stay on key while they’re doing it.

Two new musicals by young companies recently opened here. Each is ambitious in its own way. One manages to succeed; the other, just barely, doesn’t. And it’s mostly a matter of the music.

The Actors’ Theatre of Washington has expanded its mission to include an “outreach arm” to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered community, atwOUT! That unpronounceable entity seeks to “help new artists…and provide them a place to come to begin their journey and mold their craft,” according to Jeffrey Johnson, ATW’s artistic director. Moscow, which was first performed in 1998, boasts a first-time director, musical director, and lighting designer, but two of its three actors have been around the boards a few times. Steve Lebens (Jon), Dallas Miller (Matt), and relative newcomer Michael Fizdale (Luke) portray three men who have been strangers until some unspecified time in the recent past, when, for reasons also unspecified, they found themselves trapped in an empty theater. If there was ever a struggle to get out, an initial outburst of blind panic, we don’t see it; when the audience enters the Clark Street Playhouse, the guys are playing baseball (on the bare stage being used for the Washington Shakespeare Company’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore), with a broom handle for a bat and balled-up gym socks for a ball.

“Sockball” is Luke’s idea of amusement, but Jon is more taken by a copy of The Three Sisters that he’s found in the theater. He’s directing himself and his fellow detainees in a production of Chekhov’s play about unfulfilled women who are waiting for a dream. As for Matt? He’s happy to do whatever will keep the peace. At one point, he sings, “I feel more alive here” and then “I still don’t know what ‘here’ is.”

Nor do we, and we never find out. It’s a little frustrating—but more frustrating is the inability of the musical ensemble and the actors to stay in sync. A press release describes Maury R. McIntyre’s award-winning score as “unconventionally twisting,” but to my ears at times it sounded downright arrhythmic. It’s pretty hard to keep that disbelief suspended—especially under the surreal circumstances—when you can’t make out Nick Salamone’s lyrics (especially during the inevitable fugues) and you want to stamp out a rhythm for those wandering voices to follow.

All three actors are fine singers. (Miller and Lebens are also remarkably natural-seeming actors, and Fizdale, despite some physical awkwardness in the play’s more turgid moments, is getting there.) Miller’s warm tenor pretty consistently keeps to the pace. Lebens, saddled with most of the verbiage, falters right out of the gate. Fizdale manages to keep hold of one of the evening’s best numbers, a duet in which Matt challenges Luke to reveal his dreams. The Alabama-born rent boy, whose lack of sophistication has prompted Jon to snort, “If you outlive me, how will gay culture survive?” weaves a tale of triumphantly riding a Harley back to his homophobic hometown with a tight-thighed Greg Louganis behind him. It’ll be like that movie, he sings, “with Bridget Fonda’s father/That tanned old lady’s brother.”

Such moments of wit enliven Salamone’s Sartre-meets-Chekhov-in-group-therapy book, which manages to draw out intriguing parallels between the sisters and this band of brothers. Too bad so many of them get lost when the music starts. I guess, as in sockball, the only remedy is practice, practice, practice.

The Landless Theatre Company has set its bar even higher than atwOUT!’s, with a multimedia-embellished production of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s Tony-winning Nine—The Musical. And the company that usually performs in the tiny confines of the D.C. Arts Center has gotten the grand setting of the Gala Theatre at Tivoli to stage this lush, leggy tribute to Federico Fellini.

Co-directors Asha Srinivasan and Andrew Lloyd Baughman make full use of the Tivoli’s big stage, with room for a conductor’s stand, a movie screen, a dozen or so women in a loose semicircle of chairs, and an “orchestra” (of two players, but that’s two more than you usually get in Landless’ musicals). Choreographer Julie Herber likewise exults in the space, particularly in evoking the Folies Bergères. And such actors as Ally Jenkins (as producer Liliane LaFleur), Caroline Cash (in a dual role as a nun and a seaside slut), and the wonderful sixth-grader Lucien Joy (as 9-year-old Little Guido) fill it up with broad, rich performances.

Too bad Big Guido isn’t big enough. Baughman’s been a standout in other Landless productions, but he needs an adrenaline shot to fully embody the Fellini character. Maybe getting his microphone to work better would help in those crucial, plot-progressing numbers, such as “I Can’t Make This Movie.” (On the other hand, Jenkins sings the hell out of “Folies Bergères,” seemingly without any technological enhancement.)

The company has made good use of filmed segments by Hilarey Kirsner, including a long one toward the end that portrays Guido as Casanova, in a story that mirrors Guido’s relationships with wife Luisa (a touching Herber), mistress Carla (a seethingly sexy Jen Morris), and, well, pretty much every other vagina’d being on the planet. Some of them are a little clunky on the audio side—and it’s, perhaps unintentionally, funny to watch D.C. scenery standing in for 17th-century Venice—but they’re seamlessly integrated. Landless is working with a superb story here, with singable melodies and lots of color. It stands to make a mark on the local theater scene with this relatively mainstream production. Now all its lead actor/director needs to do is crank his performance in Nine up to 11.CP