The Bench: Journey into Love Needs Some Work 

Broadway-style musical reading needs to tweak storytelling and sound engineering

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Chris Mackenthun

In a crucial scene of the The Bench: Journey Into Love, a son, played by Gonzalo Valdez, berated his father, Tobin Del Cuore, underscoring the emotional disconnect between the two. Tituss Burgess, who starred as D'Fwan on 30 Rock, was dressed in black with his sleeves casually rolled to the elbow. Playing the role of Male Storyteller, he stood--knees slightly bent--between Valdez and Del Cuore, singing a narration of the scene from a binder.

"Why can't I understand you?" read Burgess, as Tobin broke away from his irascible son. Despite masterful musical and dance performances, it's a question that could be just as well asked of the play as a whole.

The play, which had two staged readings July 13 at the Nampa Civic Center, is part musical, part dance performance and part jazz recital. Its artistic team calls it "Broadway-style," hinting at its ambitions for the project. But if The Bench hopes to make it in the Big Apple, it has some work to do on its storytelling.

The Bench is the tale of a family that takes place over a generation. It's also a breakdown of the abstractions of love, the passage of time, inheritance and disappointment, with a cast of recurring characters whose personalities are fleshed out through interpretive dance. Its title comes from the piece of lawn furniture--one of the production's few props--around which much of its action revolves.

But despite some explosive and inspired dancing, and a stuck-in-your-head-all-day live jazz score, courtesy of composer David Lalama, The Bench is clearly still a work in progress.

Poor lighting and sound obscured performers' faces and made singing by Burgess and Angela Birchett, as the Female Storyteller, sometimes unintelligible--despite their commanding stage presences. Since Birchett and Burgess sang all of the show's verbal exposition, and the non-linear passage of time is an important theme in the production, better sound engineering and more coherent storytelling are critical fixes moving forward.

During the question-and-answer period following the performance, one audience member wondered what the father-son scene was all about.

"I didn't get it at all that you were angry with your father, initially," he said to the seated Valdez.

Had it not been for the librettos clutched in Birchett's and Burgess' hands, however, one wouldn't have guessed The Bench's performers had a mere four days to rehearse the two-hour production. And the dancers, who included Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti of Ballet Idaho, Chris Mackenthun (who formerly toured nationally with Cats) and Katie Ponozzo of Off Center Dance, produced an engaging and kinetic display.

"I think we learned Act II in an afternoon," said director and choreographer Kiesha Lalama.

Following the July 13 staged reading, Titus Theatricals will workshop The Bench for more than a year ahead of its 2015 inaugural tour. The staged readings are designed to troubleshoot the musical while gauging audience interest.

"This process is important because we can restructure things before [The Bench] gets to Broadway," McCree said.

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