In the cruel future depicted Celeste Makoff’s new musical Crashlight, the world is divided between a Lower Country of oppressed masses who labor in near-perpetual darkness and an Upper Country of light and plenty. Why sunlight has become scarce isn’t made clear – unless it’s in lyrics I didn’t catch – but a dictator named Marcus Pressi, called the Great Commander (Andy Dispensa), bestows only three minutes of it daily on the denizens of the Lower Country, who otherwise go about in dim candlelight.
The situation is more fairy-tale than modern dystopian nightmare, and so doesn’t demand to be thoroughly detailed in a narrative sense. Beginning with the opening number (“Three Minutes”) the music itself creates a rich atmosphere.
Music per se grounds the plot too. Rian (Lindsay Gitter) and her sisters spend their days in the Lower Country in penury, making violins and selling them to neighbors. The idea of handcrafted musical instruments as a kind of currency sets the fairy-tale tone. Pages of music scores litter the floor of Adam Crinson’s gloomy set as the tale begins. The Commander’s strict disallowance of unauthorized (decadent?) music – “If you hear something, say something” – symbolizes the tyranny, and of course imperils the women.
Rian doesn’t live in just any dark hovel; it used to be the home of a great composer, Anthony Cassing (Caleb Schaaf), who left his scores behind when, according to legend, he ascended to the world of light. Convinced of the legend’s truth, Rian prevails on her sisters to pool all their resources to get a letter to him.
It turns out Anthony has become the Commander’s “official” composer and trusted friend. But when he meets Rian the passionate activist, rebellion and romance bloom as one.
The songs, in a mix of sophisticated pop-storytelling styles – ballad, rock, tango – display a gift for melody that’s not always matched by the lyrics, which are sometimes artful but sometimes prosaic. Gitter at her best is one with this music, a charismatic lead carrying the show with well-tempered skill and emotion, though with mixed musical results: Compelling and sweetly strong for long stretches, especially in her lower register, she is sometimes sharp and harsh-sounding in her upper.
Rylee Doiron as her sister Jade shows off lovely vocals with solemn power in her one solo number, and Dispensa and Schaaf carry off their musical parts well. Duet and choral sections deepen the music’s reach, and dancers emerge to energize some of the musical numbers with Kaitlyn Moise’s energetic ballet-based choreography.
Short videos beamed to the populace inject some leavening humor, gloatingly glorifying the Commander and hilariously demonstrating the many uses of amazing foods like mushrooms and potatoes that thrive in dim settings.
Musicals staged with low budgets typically have to choose between skeletal orchestrations – e.g. accompaniment by just a piano – or recorded music. Makoff, who also directs, wisely opts for the latter, allowing for instrumentation that varies to suit the mood of each number in tastefully spare arrangements by Trevor Bumgarner.
Small Off-Broadway theaters are a world of the young and hungry, which can make age-appropriate casting a challenge. Dispensa’s dictator doesn’t seem old enough to have reigned for 15 years, nor Schaaf’s composer to have produced all the shows humorously advertised in the meta-program. But this is more fairy tale than anything else. You’ve already suspended your disbelief to accept that people will break out in song. Despite its flaws, the production has the imaginative power to draw us into its world, then send us out with songs in our hearts.