I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, John Adams (music) June Jordan (libretto), dirs. Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2nd -17th July.
In 1995, with two mighty contemporary operas to his name, John Adams completed his first ever musical theatre piece for the Broadway stage, apparently inspired by his life-long love of West Side Story. The result was the concisely titled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, and has almost nothing in common with West Side Story. It did, however, receive a solid revival at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East earlier this month.
So. There are seven Californians, all in their mid-twenties and all in emotional turmoil. Rick loves Tiffany, Tiffany loves Mike and Mike is confused about his sexuality. Consuelo loves Dewain, but he’s back in court for another trivial misdemeanour. And David just can’t seem to get Leila to give him a chance. Then comes an earthquake that shakes them out of their status quo, and forces them to reconsider their lives.
It’s actually a fairly simple set-up, and there’s very little by way of narrative complexity or character development, librettist June Jordan instead opting for a lot of musing on various themes: race, identity, gender, politics. The title of the piece (a quotation from a survivor of the 1994 earthquake that inspired it) is a good indicator of her penchant for simple, direct vernacular imagery, which results in some beautifully evocative turns of phrase which never suffer from being overly poetic. My own favourite is the wonderfully earnest line, ‘I wanna be the one you call/To figure out your VCR.’ I can’t quite put my finger on why I like it so much, but it strikes me an original and profoundly truthful way of addressing romance. Even if it’s now somewhat technologically obsolete.
The piece would still not add up to much, though, were it not for John Adams’ brilliant and surprising score. It’s often characterised by complex minimalist ostinatos, hammered out by a small – largely electronic – band, in accompaniment to vibrant and punchy rock and pop melodies. This quirky mix often feels very much the child of Sondheimian musical theatre, yet at other times (most notably the brilliantly catchy ‘Three Weeks’), the music has a much less complex funk/rock feel.
In this production, Clark Rundell presided over an accomplished band who managed these shifts in tone and style with impressive tightness and vibrancy. Particular credit has to go to Sam Healey for a blistering saxophone solo in the second act, which brought visible joy to the face of the conductor.
Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by this piece is the casting of the singers, who have to be classically minded enough to navigate their way through a complex score, yet still be able to squeal out rock vocals as if in a recording studio. It has to be said that here, directors Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia did very well. The (very) youthful cast, armed with terrific voices, approached it with gusto, and an earnestness that was endearing – if a little humourless. For me, Colin Ryan’s assured performance as the sober defence attorney Rick was probably the strongest, but only by a whisker.
The ensemble singing was really top-notch, the translucent repeated refrains of the opening chorus proving particularly spellbinding. Also outstanding was the girls’ trio about ‘The Bad Boys and the News’; its elegantly simplistic opening was a joy to hear.
The performance was not without its faults, and every now and then a little musical mistake would mar an otherwise seamlessly beautiful passage. There was the odd technical slip-up as well, particularly a rogue mic pack that decided to make a bid for freedom, dangling inelegantly before being hoist up and unceremoniously thrust into its owner’s knickers. But this particular episode was no-one’s fault (could happen to anyone) and it’s a bit mean of me to mention it; I only do so because it’s very funny.
VERDICT: An undemanding story coupled with stonking good tunes and occasional moments of real beauty. A good night out.
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