“the songs are so samey that it takes away any sort of specificity or distinction from the show’s voice”
Song cycles often have a sense of purity about them. Unrestrained by trivialities such as plot or character arcs, they’re a platform for composers, lyricists, and performers to put their talents centre stage with a diverse range of songs framed around a loose connective theme. It’s a compelling and proven format, and can launch careers if done well – see Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, for example. In Pieces, however, doesn’t quite manage to hit the mark.
Assembled from songs by Joey Contreras and directed by Louis Rayneau, In Pieces is a musical film from Future Spotlight Productions, focusing on the pieces that make up the love lives of eight unconnected New Yorkers (and their dance ensemble). The songs explore typical romantic moments such as crushes, first kisses, and wistful run-ins with ex-partners using the pop-heavy anthemic musical theatre style that Pasek & Paul have dominated new musicals with through the likes of Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman. Unfortunately, In Pieces suffers from all of Contreras’ songs sounding like this.
With every song being so similar in style, length, and subject matter, it causes the show to tonally flatline and brings the pace down to a crawl. Contreras’ music is certainly easy on the ear, but there are only so many ballads on wanting to be loved you can hear in a row. There are some standouts, however: Jordan Luke Gage brings some earthy angst with This is Not Me, Beccy Lane delivers poignant storytelling with Another New York Love Story, and Hiba Elchikhe and Luke Street ratchet up the tempo with I Could Fall. The opening and closing songs, which feature the whole cast, give the opportunity for some absolutely gorgeous harmonies and make you wish there were more group numbers outside of those bookends. All the cast are on top form vocally, particularly Kyle Birch, who constantly impresses without ever coming off as showy.
There’s also some great choreography on offer from Rachel Sargent, especially in numbers such as First Sign of Forever where it’s utilised for some really sweet storytelling. Other times, the use of the dance ensemble feels underthought, or neglected by the cinematography. The filming took place in Kidzania, a child-scaled indoor city in London, presumably to try to evoke New York, but it unfortunately makes the set look somewhat tacky and amateurish.
It’s clear that In Pieces was made with the best intentions: everyone commits 100% to the material, and it’s great to see the unabashed queer representation and celebration on display. However, the songs are so samey that it takes away any sort of specificity or distinction from the show’s voice, and as a result In Pieces struggles to engage.
“The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.”
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired; disillusioned. Synonyms include; let down, fed up, cynical, disabused. There is no question as to who the ‘someone or something’ singled out in Dennis T. Giacino’s “Disenchanted! A New Musical Comedy” is, and its subversive twist on the Disney fairy tale marketing machine, if not new, is a delight to watch. The swipes at the established misogynism, racism and many other ‘isms’ inbuilt into the portrayal of our favourite princesses are much needed, and Giacino has dressed them in pastiche melodies and some ingeniously clever and witty lyrics. It could do with perhaps more subtlety and less preachiness and bitterness, but the energy and gung-ho feistiness of all involved will appeal to all genders and persuasions.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, some artistic decisions for this current digital revival make for awkward viewing, for the wrong reasons. ‘Digital’ is the key word. This is inherently a musical that needs to be witnessed live, in the flesh, a few sheets to the wind, in like-minded company. We, the audience, are being heckled and cajoled by these comic geniuses and we should be simultaneously shamed and charmed. It is cabaret at its finest. We should be ‘loving it!’. But, rather than challenging preconceptions, this version challenges our patience.
In the original Off-Broadway run in 2014 there is a wonderful moment midway through – a gorgeous swipe at the Disney franchise. The ‘Princess who Kissed the Frog’ sings “Why’d it take ‘em so long to give a sister a song… ‘cause I am that storybook princess that’s fin’lly gone black”. Giacino’s point is that it wasn’t until 2009 when, for the first time in animation history, the fairest of them all was black. Director Tom Jackson Greaves’ decision to introduce such diversity into the casting of ‘Disenchanted’ way before this moment lets the joke fall somewhat flat.
Overall, the irreverence of the material is dampened by the exaggerated gaiety of the cast. And the hue-changing green screen backdrop distracts instead of being a neutral backdrop to the colourful characters. It takes an effort not to be snagged by these grating hurdles, but for those who make the effort to overcome them there is some reward. There is a very fine line up of performers indeed. Led by Jodie Steele’s ‘Snow White’ and aided by side kicks Allie Daniel (Sleeping Beauty) and Sophie Isaacs (Cinderella) we are guided through a series of vignettes in which various princesses are summoned to sing their way through their dissatisfactions and parody the princess culture. Highlights include Grace Mouat’s ‘Pocahontas’ (a character hitherto homogenised by the entertainment industry willing to distort her true Native-American story purely to sell cinema tickets) who sardonically sings that she “looks like a porn star”. Jenny O’Leary, as ‘Rapunzel’, brilliantly bemoans the total absence of royalties she receives from the global merchandising of her name in a Kurt Weill inspired number. And Courtney Bowman’s scathing but catchy diatribe against Middle Eastern misogyny is inspired.
There is a tenuous thread running through the musical numbers, reinforced by the repeated #princesscomplex hashtag. The messages are clear, but even now becoming a bit dated; and the balance between spite and humour aren’t always weighed up fully. Its intended audience is clear too, but the delivery is confused and awkward, like the shady, disenchanted state of limbo an adolescent might feel: too old for the youth club but too young for the pub.
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): it lives up to its definition. The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.