Powerhouse, the exhilaratingly inventive new play about the eccentric 20th-century musical genius Raymond Scott, caps off a good year for shows resuscitating dim memories of important American music figures. On the heels of the stately traditional-style musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story comes Sinking Ship’s fizzy bioplay about Scott, the jazz composer, bandleader, and electronic music pioneer.
Born Harry Warnow in 1908, Raymond Scott is best remembered today as the composer of offbeat music used in classic Looney Tunes cartoons (in adaptations by Carl Stalling) and in more recent animated shows like Ren and Stimpy, The Simpsons, and Animaniacs. But in his time he sold millions of records. Powerhouse evokes Scott’s era in a highly stylized and surprisingly incisive way, with dance, dream sequences, period TV commercials, and enormously clever puppetry and props, all brought to life by a smashing cast.
Writer Josh Luxenberg and director Jon Levin (Wakka Wakka’s SAGA) intertwine pathos and humor, threading together simultaneous scenes into a tale of Scott’s idiosyncratic musical innovations and fraught personal life. As the composer’s obsessive personality duels with his three marriages, one wonders, given Erik Lochtefeld’s marvelous portrayal, whether Scott would today be diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
The members of the supporting cast are as adept at puppetry and voices as they are at capsule drama and slapstick. The intricate, fast-paced blocking, lighting, and sound are worthy of a Broadway production (though at last night’s performance intermittent mic failures marred the flow, resulting in lost bits of dialogue). I would love to see this vastly entertaining show, an early version of which appeared at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival, on an even bigger stage.
Powerhouse sits comfortably at the New Ohio Theater, though. The stage is just roomy enough for a string of playful vignettes, that range from a hilarious sendup of Hollywood story-brainstorming to a frantically sad montage of Scott’s persistent, jealous phone calls to the hotel rooms where his second wife, the singer Dorothy Collins, is staying while on tour with a band, having outgrown his tutelage as well as her love for Scott. Hanley Smith (The Cottage) plays Collins assuredly, from her start as an aspiring but weak-voiced 14-year-old singer to maturity as a disillusioned veteran entertainer. The rest of the cast is equally good.
Powerhouse is a potent combination of inventive creativity and spot-on realization. It’s at the New Ohio Theatre in New York through November 23.