You’ve got to admire Mark Sickman. He believes – in himself and in his creative work. An award-winning advertising executive, Mr. Sickman knows what goes into a production to make it look and sound great. He’s applying this knowledge to his triple-threat (book, music, and lyrics) musical theatre piece, titled Rope, which is running through April 3 at Downtown’s Tenth Avenue Theatre.
All of the forces are in place to give this show a try in Mr. Sickman’s home town. And, hopefully, by seeing his work on stage, the triple-threat will come away with ideas about how to improve the quality of the work.
William Maledon (Dennis Holland) is an 1895 deputy sheriff whose specialty is executions by hanging. He likes to distinguish himself as someone who is civilized, carrying out a difficult task with care and respect for the person who has been sentenced to die. He distinguishes his work from lynchings, which were driven by mobs and were often ugly.
Maledon has achieved some degree of fame for his work, and his wife, Mildred (Natalie Nucci), enjoys that fame enough to travel to the towns where the hangings are to occur. A stylish woman, she dreams of a communique from Washington, D. C., that will call her husband to work there and provide her with the social standing she craves.
But, at least for now, there’s the matter of an execution scheduled for Summit City, Arizona. The man to be executed is Henry Carpenter (M. Keala Milles, Jr.). Carpenter has persisted in claiming to be innocent, the victim of inadequate defense and a jury eager to convict on scant evidence.
There’s a fair amount of commotion attached to this particular execution. For one, there’s a young newspaperman (Edgar Diaz-Gutierrez) hanging about breathlessly. For another, Carpenter’s lawyer has, for some reason, managed to get the attention of an appellate court and the execution might be put on hold. Finally, Maledon tells his wife that this execution will be his last. He’s not only ready to “hang it up” but to retire to a nice, quiet ranch, the exact opposite of her vision for their two lives.
Of course, marital conflict ensues, and Maledon reveals the secret behind his decision. It’s not a particularly convincing secret on the surface, and it serves only to harden the positions in the conflict.
It’s a story that’s not entirely satisfying, and the music that accompanies it draws on country traditions (Mr. Sickman credits the assistance of a local band called the Mystery Mountain Boys, though it is not clear whether any of the band members perform in the production). As country music often goes, the tunes are simple, sometimes simplistic, and the lyrics are similar. The songs don’t come across as essential to the plot. Undoubtedly, that’s not Mr. Sickman’s intent.
Books of musicals are often problematic, and this one follows that pattern. The dramatic tension comes from the competing visions of the Maledon couple, but clearly these tensions are long-standing, though they’re treated as newly arising. Besides the leading couple, though, the rest of the characters aren’t particularly dimensional (Mr. Diaz-Gutierrez’s character has a backstory, but it comes so late that it doesn’t matter by the time it’s disclosed). There’s a lot of work ahead to help the audience to care for the Maledons, understand their conflict at more than a surface level, and find some satisfaction in following their story.
The actors work hard to sell the material, and, under Debra Whitfield’s direction (Ms. Whitfield also did the fairly basic choreography) the show moves as smoothly as scene changes will allow. Besides Mr. Holland and Ms. Nucci, who are both seasoned professionals and do as much as they can with what they have been given, Paul Morgavo and Jeff Carver register favorably in multiple roles. But, Tyler Jiles, Trevor Perlinger, and Taylor Henderson are pretty well wasted as members of the ensemble.
The technical elements aren’t elaborate, but they will serve. Larry Taylor’s set design features a rope motif, a nice tough. Curtis Mueller designed the lighting, Janet Pitcher and Beth Connelly are credited as costumers, and Jason Chody designed the sound, which consisted mostly of balancing the off-stage band, led by Josh Weinstein.
Effective musicals often take years to develop. Mr. Sickman has a core of decent ideas here, and I hope that he will mold them into something richer than what’s currently on display.
[box]Performs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through April 3. The Tenth Avenue Theatre is located at 930 Tenth Avenue, between Broadway and E Streets. Limited street parking and pay parking is available. See http://ropethemusical.com/ for ticket and parking information. The performance runs approximately 90 minutes without an intermission. This review was based on the press opening, March 18, 2016.