Saved and Enslaved

Arizona Onstage has polished the late Jessica Grace Wing's 'Lost' into a memorable musical

Two years ago, after viewing a video of a New York production of the musical stage work Lost, I peered into my crystal ball and declared, "Arizona Onstage Productions could surely do a brilliant job with the material." (See "Finding 'Lost,' Nov. 9, 2006.)

I was right. The company has mounted a heartfelt production of this dark fairy tale, scored by former Tucsonan Jessica Grace Wing.

In her 20s, Wing moved to New York, where she directed short films and wrote off-Broadway theater scores. In 2003, barely into her 30s, she succumbed to colon cancer, but not before completing Lost; she worked on it until literally hours before she died.

Less than a month later, Lost was mounted in New York to highly favorable reviews, but it seems that it had not been performed in the intervening five years. The available libretto and lyrics didn't reflect changes made for the New York International Fringe Festival production, and the orchestration, which Wing didn't have time to complete to her satisfaction, needed work.

Arizona Onstage's Kevin Johnson and his team fashioned a new edition, polishing the orchestration until the afternoon of last week's Tucson opening. Now the work is in shape to travel from one company to another, and it certainly deserves to.

Here's how I described Lost in my Tucson Weekly article two years ago:

"Lost, which is totally unrelated to the more recent television series of the same name, spins off from the tale of Hansel and Gretel. As devised by librettist Kirk Wood Bromley, Wing's frequent collaborator, the story follows two kids, the intellectually precocious Hanlon and his sexually precocious sister, Gabby, after their father abandons them in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains. Despite the warnings of a mysterious white fawn, they accompany a bloody-smocked scientist named Laborius to his homestead, where they are taken in--in more ways than one--by his larger-than-life wife, Mamba.

"Mamba is the adoptive mother to a strange brood of misfits. She's possessive and manipulative, and she and 'her' kids quite literally can't live without each other. Mamba, a survivor of the 16th-century lost colony of Roanoke, N.C., has managed to live for centuries by harvesting the organs of young people who have wandered into her woods--people just like the brainy Hanlon and the potentially fertile Gabby. Through her magic, Mamba keeps her organ-depleted victims in a state resembling life, forming one big if not especially happy family.

"If you're familiar with the authentic, grisly versions of the Grimm brothers' tales, you'll be prepared for Lost, with its wicked adoptive parents and sorrowful victims, its loneliness and violence. Indeed, the final chorus, which in most musicals is an anthem of triumph, here has the living and dead characters come together to sing 'We Are All Lost.'

"If this reminds you of Stephen Sondheim's fairytale-inspired Into the Woods, you won't be far off. The tone of Lost is darker, but the adult themes are similar, and Wing's music, like Sondheim's since Company, holds greater interest in its rhythms and harmonies than in big tunes."

That last statement is one I'd like to revise now that I've seen Lost on stage; some of the numbers, like "Grow, Grow, My Garden of Weeds," are especially lovely and lyrical. Other pieces are, at the very least, quite catchy, and the new six-piece orchestrations enhance the score's inherent sophistication. Arizona Onstage is billing this as a "pop opera," and it is music that defies easy categorization; it suits a company like Arizona Onstage that habitually presents works by Sondheim and William Finn, and it wouldn't be out of place at an organization that offers accessible "classical" chamber opera.

As for Bromley's book and lyrics, their intermittent dark humor now seems more apparent than in the earlier production. The spoken material is written in verse; that was the specialty of the company for which Lost was generated, and Bromley's dialogue is colloquial enough to avoid sounding stilted or strained most of the time, but I wonder if the material would have a more direct emotional impact if it didn't have to rhyme. Still, its rhythms suggest a rather sinister Mother Goose, which was surely the point. And the text goes beyond nursery simplicity; Lost questions notions of love, both romantic and paternal, and along the way, Mamba, full of transplanted organs, has to address her own identity.

Arizona Onstage makes a strong case for the work. The action takes place amid little free-form pieces of set (designed by Katrina Steib)--textured structures, both whimsical and disturbingly deformed, that suggest forest, swamp and desert all at once. The instrumental ensemble played with assurance on opening night, despite limited time to prepare some of the material, and the large cast was very effective. Standouts included Juan Aguirre, lending his suave, seductive, rich voice to the role of Laborius; Jacinda Swinehart as a petulant but mesmerizing Mamba; and the poised Kristé Belt as the White Faun. Jody Mullen and Corina Riggs were engaging as Hanlon and Gabby, and Jamie Pruden made a fine impression as Ivy, Hanlon's love interest. Some voices took on a hard, sharp edge when the music pushed them into a high tessitura, but maybe that was just opening-night nerves.

Perhaps Lost will eventually take its rightful place in a short line of musicals about codependency (the most famous of which is Carousel). It's a memorable work about characters who are lost, and then found by the wrong people; the individuals are both saved and enslaved.

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