If there’s one sure-fire way to reinvigorate a stalled conversation, it’s bringing up something about 9/11. Like the Kennedy assassination in the 60s, everyone who was old enough to remember knows exactly where they were and what they were doing that day. For many of us it’s still as clear in our minds as if it were yesterday, and the stories are vivid and full of emotion. This is why I had high hopes going into the new Isle of Shoals production, Occupation: Dragonslayer, a musical that takes place in a small diner in the Financial District on Christmas Eve, 2002. That’s also when the musical was first presented to an audience, though not in the form it takes today.
Steve Walsh and Cecilia Vaicels
Conceived and created by Bryan Williams (music, lyrics, co-author) and Lance Hewitt (co-author) shortly after the 2001 attack, the musical focuses on a disparate group of lonely souls trying to scrape by — some financially, others emotionally — after a year of trying to come to grips with the loss, the devastation, and the arduous process of picking up the pieces. The diner is soon to be demolished and so this evening is something of a last hurrah for the regulars as the staff contemplates what the future holds. When a stranger with a memory blank walks in the door dressed like Santa, he sparks off conversation with each person in the room, bringing gifts out of his Santa sack for every one and listening as they share their stories about what the holiday means to them and what it’s been like since that day when so many lost so much.
The story behind the musical is one of personal loss harnessed for the sake of catharsis. Director Stephen Ryan was a rescue and recovery worker at “The Pile.” He lost friends and colleagues who had run into the towers to rescue civilians before the buildings came down. Writing Occupation: Dragonslayer was a way to pay homage not only to the people who lived, worked and died there, but also to try to remind people of the feeling that settled over the city in the months following 9/11. “New York was indeed a kinder, gentler place…what we actually began to notice was how many of our fellow New Yorkers were in need of just a friendly word. And we began to connect.”
Theodore Errig, Ruby Spryte Balsamo, and Benjamin Errig
There are some really great voices in the cast, including Cait Kelly as Jenny, Kimberly Bello as Mara, Steffen Whorton as Chris the Dragonslayer and Steve Walsh, who received surprisingly little stage time considering the quality of his contributions as both Gil the haunted construction worker on the Pile and Duffy the churlish firefighter only in it for the government pension. The three kids who appear — Ruby Spryte Balsamo, Benjamin Erring, and Theodore Errig — are incredibly delightful and harmonious as three cheeky siblings forced to go caroling with their somewhat military-minded, tramping-for-Jesus mother.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of microphones or a misbalanced sound board, a lot of those voices had to fight to be heard. Not all succeeded. Perhaps that’s why the production never seemed to entirely come together. The characters are all familiar: the line cook who dreams of opening a great restaurant, the poor little rich girl, the serial bachelorette, the waitress who dreams of the stage, the eccentric older lady in tattered furs. It’s a lot of cast, and though the production is a full two hours long, it feels like running through a list of archetypes checking off those present rather than watching one or two really develop as characters. The overall effect was to make the story seem drawn-out and without focus.
Steffen Whorton, Kimberly Bello, and John Mervini
Similarly, among the abundant musical numbers were several that didn’t feel like they helped move the story along at all. Again, this could be chalked up to being unable to hear all of the words, but they simply didn’t land with any kind of emotional force. Those that did, however, did so well. In particular, the songs “Absence,” “The Girl in the Mirror,” “The Pile,” and “Learn to Say Goodbye” felt true and the singers emoted powerfully in their moments. Likewise, the songs that brought the entire cast onstage simultaneously contained just the kind of classic spirit-lifting Broadway harmonies that bring the applause. Where the story really faltered was when the supernatural element kicks in toward the end. By making that turn, certain elements just didn’t make sense. Certain inconsistencies became apparent and the characters’ issues may have been better dealt with on a more uniformly corporeal plane.
It’s clear that a lot of love went into putting this production together, from inception to performance, but it just misses the mark. It can be stiff at times, the characters somewhat generic, and the fact that it takes place in 2002 in the Financial District is mostly irrelevant. Yet for what it is, a labor of love by those who were there, it says a lot about what they experienced and how, even 15 years later, the memories of those we lost can haunt us.
Top photo: L to R: Steffen Whorton and John Mervini
Photos by Maria Baranova