Despite the vast number of diverse theatre productions in New York City, there is a noticeable lack of plays that depict the lives of Americans living in the middle of the country. Susan Merson’s new musical play Between Pretty Places does just that in a surprisingly genuine way while also exploring themes of grief and complicated family dynamics. With enough songs to be considered a musical play but not enough to be considered a true musical, the greatest failing of Between Pretty Places is Shellen Lubin’s music and lyrics which alternate between hauntingly poetic and awkwardly trite.
Opening upon a dark stage, a woman sleeps center stage as an ethereal figure moves unnaturally and quietly around her before taking its place upon a ladder in the back of the stage. The audience soon discovers that the sleeping figure, Diane, is haunted by mysterious noises outside her home – noises that she attributes to her recently deceased daughter Cherylynn, a young meth addict who took her own life using the tree outside of her parent’s home. Diane’s husband, Lyle, behaves like a man-child in need of sex and food from Diane and with little patience for Diane’s continued turmoil over her daughter’s death. Their lives are further uprooted when Cherylynn’s 6-year-old daughter, Kyla, is abandoned by her father and forced to live with the couple. She is a lively young girl who spends time talking to her dead mother’s ghost by the tree outside the home.* As the family struggles to come to terms with Cherylynn’s continued presence in their home, both physically in the form of young Kyla (who helpfully points out to Diane that her mother is “not gone – I’m still here”) and spiritually in the form of a ghost, both Diane and Lyle must confront their life choices and their options for the future.
The most striking moments in the show occur when Cherylynn’s ghost interacts with the loved ones that she left behind. Merson’s writing has an authentic quality, especially with respect to Diane and Cherylynn. Diane speaks openly about her failings as a mother, she grows angry with her dead daughter’s suicide and the impact that it has on her life, yet she ultimately returns to a role of loving caretaker – desperate to help her daughter find peace at last. This journey leads to an incredibly poignant moment of understanding between mother and daughter. Unfortunately, while the characters of Diane and Cherylynn are gorgeously developed, the same cannot be said for Lyle whose characterization often felt one-dimensional and confused. Lyle pursues a relationship with the town librarian, unbeknownst to his wife (although she clearly suspects that they have a relationship),** and admittedly only wants to “fuck and find God”, which he apparently is unable to do with Kyla in his life. Lyle struggles with sharing his wife with anyone, including his own child, which makes him seem reprehensible as a human being or, at the very least, a horrific father and spouse. Between spouts of anger and yelling about Cherylynn’s impact on their lives, Lyle exhibits some feelings of compassion towards his daughter and Kyla; however such scenes are underdeveloped and feel hallow. Unfortunately, the development of Lyle as a character is further hindered by his musical numbers, which lack both intellectual and emotional depth (think stereotypical emotional climax song from any mediocre musical).
As a general matter, Lubin’s score and lyrics could use some focus. While Cherylynn’s numbers are appropriately eerie and melancholy with compelling depth, other songs, including nearly all of the duets with Diane and Lyle, sound the same, with ill-fitting harmonies and superficial lyrics. Cherylynn’s songs may be simplistic in both melody and verse, but at least they feel organic within the construct of the show. The same cannot be said for those songs performed by Lyle and Diane.
Primma K Cristofalo’s costuming is on point for the setting, opting to adorn the cast in cheap-looking and practical garments, and the style choices for Cherylynn, including her hair and make-up, are nice otherworldly touches that give her a specter quality. Calvin Anderson’s lighting design befits the despondent atmosphere. Despite these impressive design elements, director John Hadden falls short in his staging of this production. Too often, actors are left to stand awkwardly as they belt out songs, without any purposeful movement. These frustrating pauses halt the action of the show entirely.
Between Pretty Places includes several notable performances, in this case from the principle women of the cast. Ellen Parker is superb as Diane, deftly embodying a homemaker with a bit of sass and a troubled relationship with her daughter. Parker delivers a grounded performance with emotional intelligence and subtlety, and she has a singular connection with her onstage daughter Julie Fitzpatrick who portrays Cherylynn. Fitzpatrick captures the tormented soul of Cherylynn, highlighting the dead woman’s frailties, insecurities, and heartache through both her words and her physical presence. Jemma Kosanke brings a delightful precociousness to the role of Kyla, and she is a strong vocalist.
Ultimately, despite having numerous heartrending moments, gripping and poignant, the many themes explored in Between Pretty Places fail to fully amalgamate into a cohesive and fluid tale, and the play is marred by ill-conceived musical moments that distract from the promising premise.
*A creepy pastime, for sure.
** Side note: I grew up in a small town – there is no way that he danced and kissed a woman at the local bar without his wife finding out about it.