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Ever since a crass reality show billionaire became president of the United States, there’s been deep analysis of the bubbles in which many Americans live. There’s the liberal elitist bubble—those supposedly over-educated, out-of-touch lefties who were shocked out of their latte-sipping minds every time Donald Trump made another step toward the highest office in the country and were downright gob-smacked when he won. You also have the Rust Belt bubble, whose white, working-class economic-anxiety sufferers wanted Trump to bring coal jobs back and make America great again.
But as time passes, the whole concept of bubbles feels a little too easy. They’re surface-level snark used as an unsuccessful tactic to move any conversation about a divided America forward. Most people are too complicated and multifaceted to be boxed in. That said, if there is such a thing as a musical theater bubble, a world of the stage in which only high-minded stories are performed, then the premiere of Midwestern Gothic, stands outside it. Here we have disenfranchised folks in flannels and cut-offs singing about heartache, lust, escape, and revenge, while the blue light of a blaring television set backs them up.
Stina (Morgan Keene) is a bored teenager with a girl-next-door look and a flirtatious nature. Her stepdad, Red (Timothy J. Alex), likes loafing in his armchair and chugging beer, but is dismayed by the frequent absences of Deb (Sherri L. Edelen), his bartending wife who works a hundred miles away and rarely sleeps in Red’s bed. For fun, Stina beds the local farmhands and manipulates the naïve neighborhood dope, Anderson (Sam Ludwig), who does her bidding in exchange for Stina’s promises of love.
Co-authors Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt have put together scenes and songs that ring too simplistic throughout the play’s first hour. The characters remain stereotypes and their songs don’t move them into any deeper emotional territory. So, Stina has a rather clichéd, sexed-up number with the farm hands—four beefy guys who cleverly function as a sort of Greek chorus—kneeling at her feet, pawing and worshiping her, and lifting her up (very similar to that old Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number). But we’re left knowing nothing more about her than we did at the start of the song.
And this, unfortunately, is how most of the early songs go: We meet a character; they look a certain part; their song confirms that they are, in fact, that part; the song ends and the character’s development goes nowhere.
In the last 30 minutes of the show, however, all dramatic hell breaks loose, nearly making up for the one-dimensional songs and lack of character development that bog down the preceding scenes. Sadly, it’s not a case of a slow structural build to a juicy dramatic payoff. Rather, it’s a case of the earlier scenes needing more emotional heft in order to make the play work as a whole.
Keene sings the part of Stina with impressive consistency, belting her character’s sorrows and spinning her cunning seductive webs with equal amounts of energy. She does the best she can with a character that doesn’t have the ring of real humanity and nuance in the text. Ludwig gives a memorable turn as an awkward kid with a relentless crush, and Bobby Smith contributes a funny and endearing supporting performance as a Fargo-esque local cop.
It’s nice to see a new play that takes some fresh risks with subject matter, and a musical to boot. The next iteration of the show could be something truly special if the writers move the characters beyond the realm of stereotype.
At Signature Theatre to April 30. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$98. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.