HERRINGBONE (Flashpoint Theatre Company): A remarkably strange solo musical, about a boy … with a problem

Joshua Neale, Ben Dibble, Dan Kazemi Photo credit: Flashpoint Theatre Company

Joshua Neale, Ben Dibble, Dan Kazemi Photo credit: Flashpoint Theatre Company

This mighty peculiar story opens with a grown up George looking back at 1929 and singing, “Did ya ever have one of those years?” His parents have one foot in the poorhouse, as their only prosperous relative has just stinted them in his will. When eight-year-old George has the chance to take performance lessons from the surviving member of an old vaudeville act, he shows inexplicable ability beyond his years. Parental hopes for financial resurrection ride on little George singing and dancing his way to Hollywood.

Unusual for a modern musical, HERRINGBONE is not an adaptation of a movie or a re-do of an older musical. The source material for the book was playwright Tom Cone’s own one-act, and the musical took shape with the collaboration of Skip Kennon (music) and Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics). Flashpoint Artistic Director Thom Weaver’s scenic and lighting design of backstage at an old theater sets the right mood for the production at The Off Broad Street Theatre.

Conventional wisdom says that in a musical you can’t set up one thing and deliver something else, but this artfully constructed book and song plot does just that. A long lead-in about a southern family twists into something else. And while desperate yet hopeful Americana may ride on the top of the show, an inflection of decadence, almost a trace of 30’s Berlin Kabarett perversion, pulls in the undertow. As the boy is thrust into an impossible and nightmarish situation, the plot becomes somewhat confusing in its intent, even as the dichotomy intensifies interest.

Ben Dibble, the dream actor to play George Herringbone, is an ensemble unto himself. There’s no confusing who’s who in the jigsaw puzzle of characters. Each is distinguished by representative voice, gesture and stance as Dibble portrays young, old, male, female, midget, extant and former people – some simultaneously. Fitzhugh’s lyrics, tailored to each character’s idiosyncrasies, help the actor as he slips in and out of multiple personalities in rapid-fire exchanges and outrageous duets with himself. Singing from all the perspectives takes stamina—and he dances too (choreography by Jenn Rose).

HERRINGBONE’s intricate and precise plot is too tightly fitted together to allow for spontaneity in performance. So it’s a good thing that Dibble’s totally disciplined technician side supports his airy artistry side. There’s a clean thrill to his voice, and his performance is so buoyed up by passion that the considerable mechanics involved in negotiating the show’s requirements blend right in. 

Music and the narrative line interlace seamlessly as the intricate score worked out by Skip Kennon meshes with Tom Cone’s libretto. The score is artfully realized by Dan Kazemi (music director and pianist) along with Joshua Neale (bassist), and Lee Morrison (percussionist). Kazemi is the second actor in this one-man show, and his contributions, musical and visual, are intrinsic to the performance and enhance the tone of the production.

The musical retains an experimental feel, as normal family values with their accompanying typical squabbles, humor, and ambitions for a child collide with a stealthyemergence of dark vengeance, abuse, psychic insidious kidnapping, and murder. HERRINGBONE, which fulfills expectations you didn’t know it had, is a strange and captivating choice for Flashpoint’s first musical. [The Off Broad Street Theatre. 1636 Sansom St.] July 10–27, 2014, flashpointtheatre.org.

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.