Something magical happened to Matt Marks‘ post-Christian nihilist pop opera The Little Death: Vol. 1, when it was preparing for its current staging at Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. What had been a great collection of smart, sometimes silly, pop songs in the guise of a gently confusing pop opera has evolved into a smartly staged, well focused piece of musical theater.
While Marks’ excellent music provided the building blocks, director Rafael Gallegos has built a solid foundation and has cemented the building block together to form an elegant theatrical environment for the Marks’ eerie love story.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? was blown away (pun intended) by Thursday night’s premiere performance of the staged version. That’s quite a contrast to my reaction to the semi-staged version presented by Marks’ label, New Amsterdam Records, in March. Although I loved the sample- and hymn-heavy music, the overall feel of the piece left me a bit uneasy. It was hard to discern what Marks was trying to do. Was he making fun of Christianity or exploring the quirks and limitations of the faith context in which he was raised? Songs like “I Like Stuff,” are the types of catchy tunes that every producer wants in a musical — ones that the audience can easily hum on the way out of the theater. The lyrics are no less catchy, but that where things became a bit unsettling — when the singers compare liking hamsters and ice cream and rainbows to liking Jesus.
The piece uses recognizable samples and large chunks of Christian hymnody as the basis for some of its songs that loosely tell the story of a blossoming love affair between Boy (Marks) and Girl (soprano Mellissa Hughes), backed up by a four-member choir. Another thing that left me feeling uneasy in that early viewing was the fact that the story starts with Boy shooting Girl before time-traveling back to the start of their relationship. Marks describes Vol. 1 as “the first half of our story.”
On Thursday night, with the cast pared down to just the two principal characters (Gallegos’ risky idea) and staging so simple that it seemed primitive, everything fell into place. The love story, though still incomplete, truly came to life. The decision to pare down the cast helped focus the audience on the primary story and eliminated distractions. Gallegos’ direction perfectly complemented Marks’ music, using the space well. For example, Girl uses one of the room’s cast iron columns to perform a strained-but-still-seductive pole dance while singing about loving Jesus.
The music and lyrics also came into sharper focus in this production. I wasn’t left so unsettled, wondering what Marks was trying to do. It is clear, in the very least, that he’s exploring — and, yes, poking fun at — his religious background. But in this new production, it seems more like a reverent exploration than a flippant dismissal of that background.
This show is well worth checking out. And if you want to familiarize yourself with the music before you go, the recording is available from a number of sites, including this one.
The Little Death: Vol. 1, starring Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes, runs through July 17 at Incubator Arts Project, inside St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, 131 E. 10th St., at 2nd Avenue, Manhattan. Tickets are $18 and available here.