Bellingham is a place that is no stranger to musical theater—one need only wander into the Mount Baker Theatre where they are staging an elaborate mainstage production of My Fair Lady for ample proof of that.
But when the iDiOM takes on the theatrical form known as the musical, they take the same quirky, outside-the-box approach as they do with so much of the work the tiny-but-mighty theater produces.
Called “Music Boxes,” the works are unlike standard musicals, in that their creators take music by local bands and create a theatrical production around them. In other words, instead of the music being written for the play, the play is written to showcase the music, while the bands whose music inspired the work are onstage playing their songs as part of the “Music Box” experience. In that way, the show is much more part concert and part play—although tied together through a narrative and that iDiOM magic we’ve all come to expect—than it is a traditional musical.
I witnessed this cross-discipline partnership in action last year when I saw the second incarnation of the “Music Box”—called “Secret, Animal”—featuring the music of Anna Arvan and a script by the iDiOM’s Solomon Olmstead. And, although I’ve seen a few (read: every) musicals in my time, “Secret, Animal” was like nothing I’d ever witnessed before.
This time around, the “Music Box” effort is called “Ascent: Descend,” and showcases the unruly “murder jazz” of Falling Up Stairs. Olmstead is once again at the helm, but the explanation he offered as to what the play is about via press release was as succinct as it was vague: “Two strangers meet on a routine commuter flight from Baltimore to Schenectady, NY. When the world goes dark beneath them, their chance encounter takes on apocalyptic importance as they try to make a human connection.”
That’s all well and good, Sol, but what’s this thing actually about?
When I accosted him outside the iDiOM after he’d just finished a run-through of “Ascent: Descend” and asked him that very question, he treated me to one of his trademark sly grins and deflected the question with the ease of a man who knows preserving a mystery is sometimes more important that shining too bright a light on a thing before it’s time. However, one fact he made plain: That Falling Up Stairs was very much the inspiration for this “Music Box.” Meaning, Olmstead didn’t write a piece for the theater and find a band that would suit it; he saw Falling Up Stairs and wrote the “Music Box” to suit them, their music and their performance style.
Why them? Aside from the fact that Olmstead says “they’re awesome” (which they are), Falling Up Stairs brings an inherent theatrical element to their music and performances, and it’s this element Olmstead hopes to harness. Indeed, Olmstead knew Falling Up Stairs would be the next band he’d try and charm into being his “Music Box” co-collaborators as soon as last year’s “Secret, Animal” wrapped.
As to who the local band or musician will be who will inspire next season’s “Music Box,” Olmstead says he won’t know the answer to that until after “Ascent: Descend” is over. But if you like to see your bands perform and your actors act, all at the same time and in the same place, “Ascent: Descend” is a cross-discipline mashup made for you.
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