"I decided, finally, to get a tattoo," sings Courtney Love in her stage debut as Athena in Todd Almond's experimental opera Kansas City Choir Boy. "It's gonna be a bruise." Her voice, ravaged as ever, is not what one generally hears in musicals, let alone "opera." But it remains a powerful, visceral instrument, and when it harmonizes with Almond's on the word "bruise," the effect is magnificent.
The one-act opened last night in New York City as part of Prototype, a critically-admired, forward-looking annual festival of small-scaled opera and musical theater works. Almond, 38, is both a singer-songwriter and an accomplished composer-playwright; his husband, Mark Subias, is Love's agent, and the man who brought the two together.
But Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark this was not. Staged in the South Village performance space Here, in a room the size of a modest loft apartment, it featured a string quartet seated in the audience, a chorus of circulating dancers dressed in various flavors of nightclubbing black and dramatic action on a stage the size of three parking spots. The sensibility was decidedly indie rock, not arena rock.
It's obvious that Love could have bartered something on a larger scale. But so is the unlikeliness of such a mercurial talent venturing into the formal rigors of musical theater. To her and Almond's credit, Kansas City Choir Boy isn't a star vehicle; it's a pas de deux, with the chorus making it a genuine ensemble piece. There's virtually no dialog in Almond's libretto about two Midwestern lovers pulled apart by the woman's ambition, which takes her to New York City. Almond, the unnamed Kansas City Choir Boy, learns at the outset from a TV news report that his girlfriend has been murdered, and the story unspools in sung flashbacks against immersive computer-programmed LED panels. In one haunting scene, Love hands him his acoustic guitar from the shadows offstage, like Eurydice reaching to her lover from the afterlife.
It's one of a few moments that make you think of Love the icon – Hole's frontwoman, Kurt Cobain's widow, a person who has courted opera-sized drama in life and art equally. While the play doesn't use her offstage persona as crutch or shorthand, Courtney Love playing a lustful dead goddess is solid casting. At 50, up close, she looks her role: part state-of-the-art Dorian Gray ingénue, part tragically-imperfect, time-scarred mortal. When she and Almond undress each other, it feels mighty real.
The music is lean, balancing pop's go-for-the-throat emoting with showier stage exposition, guitar-driven soft-rock passages and laptop electronica that sounds like Trent Reznor if he was weaned on Sondheim. The singing also works both ways. Almond's high tenor plays against Love's weathered rasp – one of their models was a YouTube clip of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks singing a particularly devastating version of "The Chain" in 1982. The chorus, meanwhile, sparingly adds conventional musical theater colors and offers occasional surprises. At one point, the singer-dancers emerge with a battery of acoustic guitars and surround the crowd, inverting the audience-performer geometry. It's a slyly punk-rock moment.
Most impressive was the sense that this "theatricalized concept album," as it's alternately billed, was just that: a model for the album experience in the post-LP environment. It merged the headphone fantasias of bedroom listening with the smell-the-sweat shared experience of a club show. And if the storyline was sometimes fuzzy, that also seemed true to form – the vagueness of good concept albums encourages participatory meaning-making and a surrender to the music. In its modest way, Kansas City Choir Boy felt like one viable future of rock & roll. When the directors passed around plastic shotglasses of cheap champagne to the crowd after the curtain-less curtain call, the toast felt earned.