Theater Review: 'Fall Springs' finds its footing after sinking for awhile

"Fall Springs" - a product of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab - is having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company.

PITTSFIELD — It takes a while but late in the second act of "Fall Springs" — a product of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab that is having its world premiere at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage — this original musical finds an authentic voice. In doing so, it gains the human dimension it so sorely lacks in its early and middle going.

In a summer that has delivered a smorgasbord of social and political issues on the area's stages, it should come as little surprise that climate change and the potential damaging effects on our Earth from fracking should make an appearance. It hardly seems the stuff of a musical and, for much of "Fall Springs'" running time, it isn't, despite the hard-working efforts of the show's creators, Nikos Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Peter Sinn Nachtreib (book and lyrics), director Stephen Brackett and a generally able cast.

The setting is the village center of Fall Springs, a small landlocked town somewhere in the USA (playfully rendered by scenic designer Tim Mackabee), whose claim to fame is a product line of essential oils that come from what was once the largest underground reserve of essential oils. This reserve is under the greedy corporate hands of Essential Oil Drilling Company, which is overseen by a gorgon of a CEO named Beverly Cushman (Ellen Harvey). It is one of the show's overplayed running gags that she insists that everyone address her by her first name only.

The town's booster mayor, Robert Bradley (Matt McGrath) is determined to use the occasion of the town's upcoming semi-centennial celebration to boost tourism. But with the underground reserve beginning to dry up, the mayor gives in to Cushman's insistence that the only way to save the town and its revenue source is to use fracking on a grand scale to blast the essential oils loose from the rocks that contain them.

Never mind that the mayor's science-minded daughter, Eloise (played with conviction by Alyse Alan Louis), is concerned that the ground beneath Fall Springs is about to give way and that fracking at any scale, will be fatal for the town. She is echoed in that sentiment by a Cassandra-like vagrant named Noland Wolanske (Ken Marks), a "retired" geologist who was unable to save the mayor's geologist wife from the quicksand that swallowed her while they were exploring a cave to test her own theory about what's happening beneath the ground.

Also drawn into this narrative are Eloise's pals in a rock band named Impending Doom, in which she is the keyboardist. Joining her are the town tomboy,Vera (L.E. Barone), guitar and lead vocals, who is proud of being Fall Springs' only lesbian; Cooper (Jorrel Javier), the band's outgoing, to say the least, drummer; and the band's bassist and Beverly Cushman's son, Felix (Sam Heldt in the show's most fully realized, affecting and poignant performance, especially in his "The Bass Player's Lament"), who has a difficult time reconciling his crush on Eloise with her insistence that the corporate greed that sustains this monstrosity of a human being contains the seeds of the town's destruction.

Adding to the mix are Cooper's single mother, Veronica (Felicia Finley), a Realtor with a passion for vampires, and Vera's single dad, Roberto (Eliseo Roman), an aspiring dancer who heads the Fall Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and has a big-time crush on Veronica.

For most of the show, "Fall Springs" revels in a smug cleverness and wit that are more aspirational than real. "Fall Springs," pardon the pun, has difficulty finding its footing as it treads precariously among a host of comedic styles and genres. It lacks the hard, cynical edge of a "Urinetown," for example, and offers characters who want to be at once larger than life and human at the same time. Harvey's Beverly goes the limit, and beyond, providing a character who is, at best, excessive bordering on the grotesque.

Tsakalakos' score is undistinguished; the lyrics by Tsakalakos and Nachtreib are serviceable, at best. The singing is too often loud — to the point of shouting — and shrill. And even at a running time of just over two hours, including intermission, "Fall Springs" feels much too long.

And then, as the ground shifts beneath Fall Springs leaving devastation in its wake, the ground shifts in "Fall Springs" and, all at once, a show that seemingly has nowhere to go and takes its time getting there, finds its footing and its soul. It happens, ironically, in the insightfully crafted song "Not Gonna Happen" in which these survivors of the calamity, each faced with their own mortality while trapped on a platform in the town square surrounded by a deadly quicksand, sing of their dreams and hopes; all the things each wanted to do or accomplish in life which now appear beyond reach, let alone grasp. Redemption suddenly is not only possible but achievable. Broken connections are repaired in a manner that is sentimental without being mawkish.

It's not giving too much away to say that "Fall Springs" ends with a haunting anthem, "One Arm," as these survivors look outward at the challenge of turning a formidable new environment into a brave new world.