Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jan 31, 2014
10:04 AM
Stage Write

MTM's Rock Musical "Hostage Song" Highlights Human Connection

PHOTO BY DAN MYERS/LUMI PHOTOGRAPHY

As a kidnapped journalist, Katie Davis clings to hope—and love—in the darkness of MTM's "Hostage Song."

When everything’s been ripped away, you cling to hope, to memories and to what’s right in front of you. Those connections are at the heart of Music Theater of Madison’s production of the rock musical "Hostage Song" (playing through February 1 at The Frequency).

The plot’s like the world most horrible and doomed meet-cute. Jenny (Katie Davis), a journalist, and Jim (Mikhael Farah), a military contractor, are the titular victims, rudely kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. Blindfolded and bound, trapped in a darkened room, their emotions pinball from terror and confusion to humor, flirtiness and love—and, yes, unrestrained bouts of singing. Davis's Jenny, her face splattered with the blood of her now-dead interpreter, has the show’s most powerful pipes. Farah’s Jim, a likable lout, is better on the slower, quiet tunes.

The Frequency’s cramped stage is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the tight quarters really amp the claustrophobic feel, giving the audience a sense of what the hostages are facing. On the other, there were two occasions where actors accidentally knocked over musical equipment while moving back and forth.

A couple of the tunes in Kyle Jarrow’s songbook resonate (“Jenny Baby Don’t You Cry,”) but frankly, even though the cast delivers them in confident voice, they’re largely window dressing for the drama rather than the main event. Clay McLeod Chapman's script is strikingly effective: In vignettes both real and invented inside the hostages’ heads, he hones in on evocative details that bring each one of the characters to life. Things like Jenny remembering how she’d save the chocolate Magic Shell for last on her ice cream sundae or when Jim’s wife, a strongly emotive Dana Pellebon, conflates a happy birthday banner from Jim’s childhood home movies with a banner in the grainy footage the terrorists release of her husband. In contrast, a fantasy scene in which a still-blindfolded and bound Jenny brings Jim home to meet her dubious parents is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

"Hostage Song" has a lot of these moments, as the sense of impending dread builds with each passing scene. There’s a palpable ache when Jim’s wife realizes she’s beginning to forget what he looks like. Clayton Hamburg spends the first half of the show singing and rocking the guitar. When he shifts mid-show to play a few scenes as Jim’s troubled son, it’s a dramatic revelation—Hamburg really nails the mix of intensity and resentment a teenager who never really knew his dad is facing as he confronts the fact that he’ll never see him again.

Director Catie O’Donnell artfully deploys clever details to amp the mood, like the actors delivering the microphones to the blindfolded leads in a tender way when they’re playing loved ones, and ripping them away rudely when they’re dressed as terrorists.

"Hostage Song" is not much for politics—the terrorists never speak, and we never learn a thing about their motives or cause. Ultimately, this is a story about the completely tenuous connections we share with each other, and how we cling to them once everything else has been ripped away. It’s only playing for two more nights. Get thee to The Frequency. 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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