Theater Review: RELATIVE SPACE | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Theater Review: RELATIVE SPACE

New musical features great songs and a great story that may not be ideal together

Posted By on June 27, 2023, 2:12 PM

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click to enlarge Elizabeth Golden and Leah Chase in Relative Space - SUZY O PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Suzy O Photography
  • Elizabeth Golden and Leah Chase in Relative Space
It’s easy for what you know about the circumstances behind a creative work to shape the way you think about it. In the case of the new musical Relative Space, part of the show’s marketing-friendly backstory tells us that the show’s songs—co-written by teenage singer/songwriter Kjersti Long—were created first, and that the narrative by Utah playwright Melissa Leilani Larson was constructed around that pre-existing musical material. And that story, as it turns out, makes it far too easy to wonder if this great piece of dramatic theater and these particular really good songs actually belong in the same show.

It’s only because Relative Space’s individual components are so strong that this lack of cohesiveness feels frustrating. Larson’s story begins in a contemporary home, with mother Shannon (Elizabeth Golden) and her high-school-age daughter Britt (Leah Chase) both clearly struggling with mental-health issues, as interior designer Shannon finds it hard to get out of bed, and Britt skips school to work on art in the family home’s attic. But that family home has its own history, as flashbacks to two previous generations show the women in Shannon’s family dealing with similar challenges in eras when such things were not spoken of openly.

click to enlarge SUZY O PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Suzy O Photography
Those transitions are accomplished through some terrific stagecraft as directed by Shelby Noelle Gist and Joshua Long, part of a wonderfully creative physical production that also employs four dancers not just as innovative ways to shift scenery, but as representations of the characters’ emotional state, almost puppeteering them to force them into action. They serve a sensitively-conceived story that finds just the right places for comic relief without avoiding the seriousness of the subject matter, as Golden and Chase capture not just the pain of depression and anxiety, but the times when the burden of pretending for others that you’re not in pain makes things even harder.

It’s also an unconventional approach to have a musical’s songs performed not by the actors, but by a separate singer, as Long herself provides the voice for her compositions. She’s got a powerful rock belt, and the songs are jaggedly catchy throughout, more in keeping with the style of something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch than a more traditional musical-theater style.

The question is how those songs work with the story, and the answer is, “It’s complicated.” The lyrics are not always easily discernible in the crunching arrangements, and even when they are, you need to tilt your head and squint for them to really feel like they’re about the situations at hand. As much as the crunching musical numbers provide an effective sense of the tumult going on inside the characters, it often feels like those numbers would be just as effective—or maybe even more so—if they were in fact simply instrumental numbers, and not songs with lyrics that are inviting interpretation.

Kjersti Long’s father, co-composer and show co-producer Jeremy Long kicked off the opening night of Relative Space by reminding the audience that it was a work in progress, and it’s fair to acknowledge that everyone involved understands there are still rough edges to be sanded out. The bigger challenge will be deciding if these songs are the right way to serve this story, or how to pull them all together into one unified whole. All the pieces that are present here deserve to be given the forum that serves them best.

Relative Space runs through July 1 at Liahona Theater for the Community (2464 S. 450 West) in Pleasant Grove. For tickets and other show information, visit relativespacemusical.com.

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Bio:
Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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