in: Reviews

March 29, 2011

Pop Songs and Personal Identity

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Despite the allusions to Sartre in the title, Adam Baratz’s Karaoke Is Other People is a light one-act musical that explores the relationship between pop songs and personal identity. This new work was premiered at the Lily Pad art gallery and performance space in Inman Square, Cambridge on Sunday, March 27. The narrative concerns three recent college graduates meeting up for an evening of karaoke. Jordan, fully absorbed into the nine-to-five office routine, has invited his cynical sister Zoë to join him and his bubbly college girlfriend Tamar for something of a reunion. The setting worked well in the intimate space of the Lily Pad, and minimal set decorations and furnishings simply but effectively evoked a casual, perhaps slightly worn, studio. As the trio reminisce and catch up with each other’s current circumstances, they choose songs to punctuate their conversation and expose their feelings. While the dialogue was realistic and sincere, the play had neither a dramatic nor a musical climax, and I was left feeling as if this was really the first act of a larger work.

The musical contains nine original songs that run the gamut from cabaret to folk and hard rock. Despite the conceit that these are real-world pop songs from different eras and genres, all the tunes have Baratz’s stamp on them, in particular a certain chromaticism in the harmonies and lilting semitone inflections in the melodies. I would have liked to experience a musical setup that allowed Baratz to explore fully his individual voice. The somewhat cheesy taped accompaniments to the tunes did not give justice to their emotional impact and only gave a taste of what Baratz has to offer in terms of emotional drama.

Each of the songs not only respectably represented their genres, they all had very evocative connections to the characters and their emotional lives. Similar to the conventions of opera, the songs in Karaoke Is Other People supplied much of the character development and narrative drive, such that the spoken dialogue seemed to merely fill in the details as the musical progressed. As the conversation moves from superficialities to deeper topics, the songs progress from light, ironic pop tunes with humorous and flirtatious lyrics to more introspective and complicated songs. Of the nine numbers, I found the penultimate song, a very compelling indie-rock ballad sung by Zoë, to be the most beautiful and memorable. The song also provided the most touching moment in the narrative, when she reveals the sadness and loneliness underneath her dismissive attitude. The actress’s performance was perfectly expressive and easily the best of the evening.

After this parade of increasingly emotionally intimate pop tunes, Karaoke Is Other People ends with a rather traditional show tune with the trio finally singing together. Baratz obviously knows how to write a big finale, even with in the context of a small, three-person play, and despite its ambivalent message (“it’s hard to be happy”) the tune had a lot of momentum.

The three actors were all genuine and believable in their roles. Unfortunately, Jordan Piel, the ostensible lead, had the weakest voice, particularly in the finale’s harmony singing. The two women easily eclipsed him; Tamar Avishai gave a very theatrical performance, and Zoë Piel sang with an expressive and emotional sincerity.

Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.

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