In their program notes for “The Great Work,” the principals of 7th House Theater write that the musical they opened Tuesday in the Guthrie studio had been cooking only since early November. They had changed course from an earlier, grander vision.
We appreciated but did not need the tip. It is evident this work needs time in the oven.
7th House consists of young, talented theater folks who take seriously both their stage performance and their commitment to build new work. Sometimes, such as last year’s “Jonah and the Whale,” the result is beautiful. “The Great Work” is what we might call a noble attempt.
This is a thin and confused narrative. Grant Sorenson is credited as writer, though 7th House creates as an ensemble so I leave it to them to sort out the blame. We open at Carnegie Hall, where a pianist (represented by his 80-year-old self and his 20-year-old self) is suffering a trauma. Is this literal, a metaphor, a catalytic event? Why is this the first thing we are seeing?
The pianist, Hans Gartner (the elder played by David Carey), is on a trip to Austria with his estranged daughter, Charlotte (Kendall Anne Thompson). There are hints the old man is near death and wishes to revisit his homeland in what would be a memory play.
In 1955, young Hans (Andy Frye) is engaged as a piano tutor for one of the richest families in Austria. He courts the affection of both Elisabeth (Bergen Baker) and Franny (Shinah Brashears) von Laudon and is promoted by an impresario (Aleks Knezevich).
What isn’t clear in this very slim work (65 minutes) is the intersection between the stories of young Hans’ decision to become a concert pianist and the fractious relationship between old Hans and Charlotte. That latter seems where the stakes really are but Sorenson’s script and David Darrow’s lyrics don’t accomplish that ambition.
Darrow fares better as composer. He writes with a fine ear for melody and a knack for the modern musical. But forgive me. Young Hans is turning the heads of aristocratic Austrians in 1955 with show tunes? In the land of Mozart and Liszt?
The cast sings very well. Baker and Knezevich are most impressive. Kate Sutton Johnson has designed an elaborate scenic device using cables and streamers and confetti, Adam Raine’s lighting design is solid and Jason Hansen leads a six-piece band with distinction.
Alas, the smoke and mirrors cannot mask an unfocused and disjointed story that is woefully underdeveloped. The acting, too, takes the shortcut of operatic emotion rather than the harder work of intimacy.
But please do not lose heart, 7th House. Rise up and show us something better.