Red Eye Theater is known for its experimental postmodern approach to stagecraft. However, the musical "The Secret Lives of Coats, a Play With Songs," which had its world premiere in Minneapolis this weekend, is a departure from the avant-garde. Playwright-lyricist Stephanie Fleischmann and composer Christina Campanella draw more from classic Broadway than Beckett. Along with director Hayley Finn, they hew to a style charmingly reminiscent of such smaller-scale musicals as "She Loves Me" and "Company." These three have been developing the project over the past seven years with support from the Playwrights' Center.
The setting is the coat check area of a posh restaurant where three attendants, all women, staff their own booth, each flanked by a coat rack. They communicate with one another through tin can telephones that can also track the sound of the coats' psychic energy. Numbered coat-check tags must always match up between the coat owner and the hanging coat and when they don't it's cause for concern. Colorful tunes like "Coatcheck Manifesto," "No Numbers" and "Lost and Found"relate the staff's self-consciousness of their duties. It is pointed out often that "the customer is never wrong."
Pino (Dustin Valenta), a tyrannical maître d' who is prone to reckless accusations of theft and insubordination, micromanages the attendants. When a customer's diamond brooch goes missing, he assumes that veteran attendant Lisette (Gail Ottmar), has stolen it and threatens to fire her.
When her fellow attendants Lila (Charlotte Calvert) and Leanne (Anna Hickey) stick up for her, Pino has a labor crisis on his hands.
Ottmar touchingly embodies the anxiety of a middle-aged woman about to lose her livelihood. Calvert and Hickey are delightfully honorable as Lisette's loyal compatriots. Valenta is a comic marvel. He sometimes seems to ricochet across the stage in zealous pursuit of controlling things. He even does the splits.
However, despite the piece's populism, the rich are humanized in "Four Seasons," movingly rendered by Miriam Must as the Duchess. She sings of her dead husband.
Finn has directed the actors to create an atmosphere of tension between workers, management and haughty restaurant patrons. This palpably serves Fleischmann's theme of how neurotically supervised workplaces devour employee dignity.
Gary Johnson and Liz Josheff's set evokes faded elegance. Craig Harris' music direction, his band and all vocals enliven Campanella's vibrant Broadway style, but regrettably Harris' own piano accompaniment frequently overpowers the singing.
John Townsend writes about theater.