If, like me, you sometimes suffer from insomnia, listening to and pondering and slowly memorizing the mesmerizing masterful Charles Bloom score to Insomnia could become a favorite habit and make you swear off counting sheep or all the things you have to do the next day (or didn’t get around to before bedtime). WARNING: There could be side effects to this plan. While attempting to nod off, you’ll likely pop up like an English muffin catapulted from the toaster when you hear a deliciously clever internal rhyme semi-hidden in the nooks and crannies of a lyric line. Jumping up too quickly with the delight of internal rhymes can cause internal injuries, but it will be a good kind of hurt if you appreciate the finest in songwriting craft. These words melt into the well-constructed melodies like the butter on that toasted carbohydrate crater. Also, once asleep, you may similarly spring to frustrated wakefulness should the high quality of language-loving craft infiltrate your dreams to replace the more mundane vocabulary that keeps you in the Land of Nodding Off. But there’s something to be said for sung-through dreams as articulate art that can tickle the funnybone.
You see, this musical, which itself popped up again as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival last month, is something that should not be in post-summer hibernation, but should be part of the fall season and like the annual harbinger of cooler weather, the New York Marathon, be a long run. Having enjoyed its latest (albeit brief) incarnation, that’s my hope. I saw it before launching into a punishing schedule of seeing other shows in another summer theatre festival and Insomnia kept resonating as being the frontrunner ahead of that pack whose best offerings couldn’t approach the high bar set here or in Mr. Bloom’s other work as sampled on the CD released of his material sung by a radiant roster of singers, In Here.
The plot of Insomnia concerned a concerned writer, a guy who has recurring —you guessed it— insomnia, with recurring thoughts that keep him awake. Misery loves company, and Brad has company, in thoughts and in the flesh. The closest in physical proximity is his neighbor who over-drinks as much as he over-thinks and over-shares. They share a tendency to rue the roots of their woes and ruminate in the room that Brad calls a bedroom, though he doesn’t spend much time in the bed, at least in the closed-eye activity he covets. Maybe because he has his eyes closed to his deeper problems, like daddy issues. Brad is the son of a writer, so right away we see that’s a problem, as the presumed/imagined critiques are almost imagined among the pages he never much gets to. But let’s get back to that neighbor lady whom we left waiting outside the door. Come in, please! She’s come to be the Queen Bee—that is, she is an actress with a long history of appearing in “B” movies. It’s a fun pun, not overdone, though Charles Bloom makes the most of it by turning it into a song title and key line so we have the welcome excuse to hear the juxtaposition several times. It’s a cute hoot and a showpiece for an actress to feast on a few slices of ham. A theatre person with less self-control might opt for the temptation to also name the character Bea, but that would bring us into a cartoon, and so she’s Sylvia. However, she does get a surname that shines. (That’s a hint—think of a precious metal.) In Theodore Wolf’s script for this revamped version, she might dwell on drinking and drinking and drinking too much, at the expense of character development and showing other aspects to what could be a more dimensional eccentric. Maybe there’s room for a touching moment to show what’s below the surface of the friendship that could be based on more than the handy convenience of living in the same building and not having to change from night garb and grab street clothes to go see each other.
No, a romantic relationship is not in the cards for these neighbors. The guy is gay. But he has a long-term, long-delayed plan with a long-time female friend to co-parent a child. It’s just one of the many things keeping him awake nights (and days). Some of the show’s most interesting scenes come from this thwarted back-burner project that burns not in his loins, but in his mind and that of his chum. Her biological clock’s remaining hours are running short as is her fuse as she waits. And waits. Second-guessing/third-guessing Brad, whose tombstone might likely one day read “But What If I Hadn’t Died?” or “here lies Brad for eternal rest…finally,” procrastinates because he might opt to have a life with a man. Not that he’s in a relationship of any seriousness. Or anything you might call a relationship. This is not a new show—it’s been kicking around for some years, so the original version was mounted before gays could legally marry. Ah, just one more option for Brad to worry about. Or sing about. The thing about musicals is that they can be tweaked and updated, with those set in contemporary times especially ripe for the picking over. The Bloom score and the book have had their retooling. The ever-increasing presence of connecting with people through forms of technology has invited a series of characters who do so, and in the recent production were all, pointedly, played by the same actor. If we should say, he sleeps with them at all (let alone “sleeps with them all”), we do use the term “sleep” in the form as loose as some might think his morals are. Notably, the references to sex and kinks are so Bloom-brushed with cleverness that there’s not much risk of being offended or feeling that they’re gratuitous.
The elephants in the room are the father to the man at the center of the tale (all too real) and the not-yet-born-or-even-conceived child (who appears on stage in a coup of emotional impact). For all of Brad’s immaturity, the assured insights cited by the other two are a satisfying balance. The psychological undercurrents are underplayed nicely, so the food for thought never lies too heavily in the stomach after digestion.
The threads in Insomnia could be woven in many directions, but I just hope its direction is to a theatre near you this new season. Its strongest assets are two: the music and the lyrics, so Charles Bloom gets two trophies from this reviewer. I first encountered his work in a songwriter showcase on the stage of a series at a public library and I made sure to grab CDs of his work, including a souvenir of this score, when the opportunity came my way. With the changes and the prospect of a new cast, one expects there will be another Insomnia cast album soon. You can’t have too much Insomnia.
My perspective in this column has been to write about the joys of the project as a piece of musical theatre, rather than to review the ephemeral specific production that woke up from that past after too long a rest, like Rip Van Winkle, this sleepy summer. However, for the record (and for some, maybe the record that would be that next cast recording), I would be remiss not to acknowledge the all-around good work of the company who got to sink their teeth into this tasty banquet, cast pictured above: Jesse Manocherian, Anette Michelle Sanders, Chris Brick, Dennis Holland, Tyler Milliron, Philip Skinner, Lauren Lukachek, director-choreographer Ovi Vargas. And the icing of the cake of music is pianist/musical director James Followell. As with the talented Mr. Bloom, I was Followell well acquainted. His reputation precedes him, with a marvelous sense of accenting and dressing melodies without ever giving the words less prominence, as he has shown in my experience in some memorable cabaret concerts and recordings. Having congratulated him onstage personally after the show, and shaking his hand, I can assure you from direct observation that, despite what his piano playing would lead you to believe, he still only has five fingers on each hand.
There are a lot of musical theatre writers out there. As a theatre attendee/critic and decade-long reviewer of scores of scores on CDs, and a lifelong collector of them before it became a job and they came in the mail for free (allowing me to spend money on other hobbies like paying the rent and eating), I’ve seen that (too) few writers consistently make me drop my jaw in awe and admiration so often. Floating on waves on interestingly intricate melody, or sweet lines, you don’t smell Charles Bloom’s smart rhymes and wordplay coming a mile away or even a millimeter away. He is able, syllable by able syllable, to pack things more tightly than my Aunt Hortense who amazingly managed to get everything in her closet into one suitcase and nothing wrinkled. OK, I don’t have an Aunt Hortense, but, if I did, wordsmith Bloom, were he not such a humble and polite gentleman, critique my lying sentence by setting it to inventive melody and rhyming her name, saying that I need to have an aunt analogy that makes a scant more sense. But, if “scant” didn’t scan, he’d find an equally attractive and unusual musical phrase and make it sing.