“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” says Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed. We often encounter conflicts or situations where opposing viewpoints create very different stories. Michael John LaChiusa adapts three Japanese short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, including “The Grove” on which Akira Kurosawa based his western hit Rashomon, intertwining them to create a production showing that, well, we often see what we want to see and that “truth” is a flighty creature that can never be pinned down and shown objectively. See What We Wanna See, a chamber musical produced by Aria Entertainment at Jermyn Street Theatre, is a delicate, intimate performance with a strong cast. However, LaChiusa’s trilogy with loosely connected themes has little else that links them and feels like an evening of short plays rather than a cohesive, full-length musical.
As the prelude to each act, “Kesa and Morito” shows a medieval Japanese couple recently discovered having an affair. They are seeing each other for the last time. Both have plans for their final encounter and blackouts preclude discovery of their fate. “R Shomon” follows as the bulk of the first half, a thriller set in 1950’s New York. Four characters tell totally conflicting witness statements to an unseen policeman. Who is telling the truth about the death of The Husband? How is this piece connected to the opening where Kesa shares her story in a single song? The audience never finds out. The ending to this mini-musical is deliciously ambiguous with some complex musicality in the songs, but the connection to the “Kesa and Morito” prologue is tenuous at best.
The second half is the same structure. Morito shares his side of the story for the duration of a single song, then “Gloryday” is the rest of the act. This is a more compelling story than “R Shomon” and could be a longer, standalone production. A disaffected priest creates a hoax miracle that takes post-9/11 New York City by storm, making some pointed criticism of Jesus and his followers by comparing them to the vulnerable that fall for his trick. The end has a poignant twist and reiterates the show’s focus on the fluidity of truth within deceit and crime. Whilst these are good stories and maintain audience interest, there is no linking transition or any comment on the three other than presenting them together. This emphasizes the timelessness of the theme, but takes no particular point of view on it. LaChiusa’s message is consequently unclear.
The cast of five is fantastic; in a small theatre with a four-piece band are quiet enough that the actors don’t need mics so detail isn’t lost through amplification. There is no week link; they all have the chance to play at least one substantial role with the others showcasing their range. Jonathan Butterell as the priest that loses his faith in the second act’s “Gloryday” is particularly touching. Mark Goldthorp as the reserved 1950s taxi company boss in the first half’s “R Shomon” is quietly enigmatic and counters the brashness of Marc Elliott’s Thief and Cassie Compton’s resentful Wife. The priest’s Aunt Monica as given by Sarah Ingram is light relief but still possessing emotional depth.
LaChiusa’s music is reminiscent of a gentler, simpler Sondheim with influences spanning different eras and cultures. Simon Anthony Wells’ design similarly captures the different worlds in the production. Despite compelling individual stories, great performances and some lovely songs, the audience is left questioning what they are meant to take from the production and unsatisfied by the lack of a deeper connection between the three component tales. It’s still definitely worth seeing the London premiere of this unique, cosy production by Aria Entertainment, a producer vital to musical theatre for staging new and rarely staged work.
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