First, a history lesson: In the spring of 1993, it rained. The rain collected in the rivers, and the rivers began to rise. Soon enough the levees broke, and there was a flood. The result: $15 billion in damages, fifty dead, and 30,000 square miles of the American Midwest annexed into the Mississippi River. It is now called The Great Flood of 1993 and, following Katrina, it is the worst flood in the nation’s history.
A few years later, two hapless Princeton juniors stumbled upon this tragic story and decided to turn it into – wait for it – a musical. They called it “The Flood”; it ran for two weeks, and then everyone forgot about it for many years. Last spring, however, Princeton University Players (PUP) recovered this play from obscurity and, perhaps because of the relative topicality of the show (the director’s note tells us that, in the wake of Katrina, it “resonates strongly”), returned it to the stage. And if you go to the Matthew’s Acting Studio sometime this weekend, you can see the results for yourself.
I. A Very Bad Play
The Flood is set in Meyersville, a fictional Illinois river-town. The first act relates the days leading up to the Great Flood, and the second act, the flood’s aftermath. It is a truly sensitive, smart, and subtle exploration of life in small-town America as it faces eminent disaster, executed with a deftness that imbues the minutia of daily existence with a beauty and pathos all its own. Wait, what? No, I’m just kidding. The Flood is a very bad play. Musical theater is a tricky medium; without true chops, it is all too easy to wind up with a ridiculous product. And The Flood, if anything, is a ridiculous product. The unavoidable silliness of the medium straight-out denigrates the material, while the gravity of the material only clarifies for the viewer the silliness of the medium. In keeping with this point, the most glaring offense of the musical is the score, which comes straight from the pen of Corky St. Clair. It is the obvious product of contemporary musical theater, wherein all genres are sapped of their value and subsumed into the category of show-tune. The result is bland and homogenous, unable to convey any emotion or message beside, ‘you are listening to a musical’. I feel particularly bad for the very talented Billy Hepfinger, who plays Christian fundamentalist and Vietnam War veteran Ezekiel Wright. Billy is forced to perform a series of groovy, rock’n’rollin’, pseudo-gospel songs that are (a) awful and (b) entirely incongruous with Wright’s character.
In addition to the problems posed by the score, the playwrights appear to have a very limited grasp of normal relations between human beings. Take Raleigh Keller (Spencer Case ’09). Raleigh is the high-school-aged son of the town’s mayor. He is saving up money to buy a car. He is earnest and two-dimensional. Also, he wants to get laid. As the levee crumbles, Raleigh cheats on his girlfriend, Alice, with her mentally challenged little sister, Rosemary. Then, through blatant negligence, he allows the girl to drown. Grounds for a break-up? No, apparently not. Raleigh and Alice simply sing their problems at one another and the drama is solved. Raleigh’s girlfriend takes him back.
Finally, the lyrics. Take the song “Runaways”, in which Raleigh sings to Rosemary about the joy of fireworks. “Kapow” and “kaboom” are used as verbs; fireworks, we are told, “explode into booms.” And so does the whole script.
II. A Very Good Production
Musical theater and subtlety are mutually exclusive aims. In a musical, when emotions become too strong for words, the actors sing; when emotions become too strong for song, the actors dance.
But boy, can these kids sing and dance.
In all earnestness, PUP’s production of The Flood is very successful. Directresses Bischoff and Borowitz prove themselves astute and capable interpreters, while the cast is simply brimming with talent.
Actors weaned in musical theater rarely adapt appropriately to dramatic theater because the two forms call for a very different skill-set. Whereas the latter requires the actor to embody a fully realized, flesh-and-blood human being, the former merely requires the actor to hop between various emotional registers: I act this way when I’m sad, this way when I’m happy, this way when I’m angry. Endemic in this type of acting is an “aw shucks” attitude on the part of the actors, and this affects the delivery of every line. By and large, however, the cast of The Flood manages to avoid this horrible pitfall – and for that alone, it deserves heaps of praise. Hepfinger, Connor Diemand-Yauman and Jonathan Schwartz merit special mention here, as actors who were able make much more of their characters than the two-dimensional beings present in the script.
Additionally, Bischoff and Borowitz successfully execute a number of demanding, complex scenes. The finale of the first act – where the townsfolk scramble to pile sandbags upon the failing levee – particularly stands out. Moreover, the scenes that could easily devolve into absurdity (such as Rosemary’s death) are handled with tact and care.
PUP’s The Flood is a rarity among campus shows; as a great production of a bad play, it is the inverse of the norm.
But hey, whatever. Hats off!