Acting shines, but cast needs some voice lessons

Those in the mood for a quirky play that will alarm viewers with its subject while charming them with its characters, “Landscape of the Body,” by John Guare, is for you. The show opened Friday, Oct. 14 at the UAA Mainstage, and while the singing left much to be desired, the interesting story and strong performances made the ticket price worthwhile.

The story revolves around Betty (Jill Yarbrough), a small-town single mother who comes to New York to bring home her sister Rosalie (Miranda Harris), who is relishing a new fast-paced life as a scam-artist and part-time porn star. Early in the play, Rosalie dies, and Betty moves into her apartment and takes up her life. The main tension in the play comes from its flashback convention, which lets us know very early that Betty’s son Bert (Jessie Scholz) is going to be gruesomely murdered, though we won’t find out who the killer is until the end. By adding this ‘whodunit’ layer to the story and peppering it with jazzy musical numbers, Guare (who also wrote “Six Degrees of Separation”) crafts an eccentric story that has the potential to be quite entertaining.

It should be mentioned right away that this is not what most people expect when they think of musicals. At no point is the scene brought to a halt as the cast breaks into a choreographed dance number while singing a show-stopping musical number. Instead, the songs, all solo’s, are mainly used for segues between scenes. Live music was provided by pianist David Cuffel, which lent a unique atmosphere to the production. Unfortunately, Cuffel needed much better vocal accompaniment than what the cast provided.

What’s most remarkable about this production is the great match of script to director. David Edgecombe could not have found a quirkier play more suited to his directing style. As the story swings from grisly to sweet to silly, Edgecombe is able to maintain the focus of the play remarkably well. The audience could easily be confused by the disjointed, non-linear story, but the action and themes were easy to follow.

Yarbrough brought a great vicious intensity to the sad character of Betty. She has a short fuse, which Yarbrough exploits with explosive indignation at times. She easily transitions to lonesomeness and tragic self-loathing as well, which combines for a fully developed main character who we can’t help but root for and chastise at the same time. In the end, we just feel sorry for her.

Yarbrough is surrounded by a supporting cast of fascinating and fun characters. Harris plays Rosalie with a wonderfully sensual physicality. She enthusiastically savored her role as Rosalie enthusiastically savors life. However, it is clear that she was cast for her acting talents, not her singing. Most of the songs fall to her, and she’s no diva. But the right emotions get across, if not the right notes.

Scholz portrays Betty’s 14-year-old son Bert quite well. Bert is wounded and vulnerable behind his tough front, which comes across strongly and consistently. Scholz’s excellent chemistry with Yarbrough gives Betty and Bert’s explorations of what their little family means to them poignancy and tenderness. Scholz also gets one musical number, which is by far the best in the show. Scholz can sing with power and feeling and, most importantly, on key.

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Even the set reflects the quirky story. Margaret Hugi-Lewis’s design of intertwining staircases dotted with chairs and tables looks right out of an M.C. Escher painting.

“Landscape of the Body” deals with vices, including theft, drugs, sex and murder. If you can handle that, and music sung way off pitch, then you should have a good time.