A Bold Concert of Songs and a Potent Play Leave Audiences Abuzz

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Saturday matinee of “Most Happy in Concert” had just let out at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and grumbling disgruntlement hung in the air, along with surprised puzzlement.

“Was there supposed to be a story involved in that?” a woman asked her companions her, on a patio outside the ’62 Center for Theater & Dance at Williams College.

No, ma’am, evidently there was not. Or if there was, it isn’t the story that Frank Loesser tells in his 1956 musical “The Most Happy Fella,” about the romance between the unhandsome middle-aged Tony and the waitress Rosabella. To be fair, no one promised that it would be. This is not the musical but rather a 70-minute program of songs (and song fragments) from the score. And it may leave you, as it’s left me, humming those tunes for days. This, though, is no friendly, pattering cabaret.

Conceived and directed by Daniel Fish, this fast and busy show on the festival’s main stage (through July 31) is far more aggressively experimental than the sexy, bloody reboot of “Oklahoma!” that he put on Broadway with its book intact. That production was so conscious of the audience’s presence that intermission featured a communal meal of chili and cornbread. Granted, Fish wanted ultimately to implicate us in the American culture of gun violence that’s at the core of that show. But it mattered that we were there.

“Most Happy in Concert,” whose fella-free cast of seven includes two terrific veterans of Fish’s “Oklahoma!,” Mary Testa and Mallory Portnoy, is a starkly different creature: aurally rich and gorgeous, visually austere and glamorous — and utterly aloof from its audience.

It’s not just that one song bleeds into the next with no pause for breath, let alone applause. It’s that from the opening number, “Ooh! My Feet!,” which the actors perform in a remote corner way upstage, there is the strange, shrugging sense that this production needs nothing from us, and would hurtle right along even if no one were watching from the auditorium. Maybe that will change in future iterations, as Fish gets closer to solving the show’s mysteries. For now, it’s a real obstacle.

The trouble isn’t an absence of artistry, and it certainly isn’t the cast, which also includes Tina Fabrique, April Matthis, Erin Marky, Maya Lagerstam and Kiena Williams. Songs like “Somebody, Somewhere” and “Big D” are lovely, and Fabrique makes every second of “Young People” entirely her own. The sole case that this concert unambiguously makes is that someone needs to hand Fabrique a big, juicy role in a full-on musical as soon as humanly possible.

But any larger point is lost. What does it mean to take the girl-watching harmonies of “Standing on the Corner” out of the mouths of men and put them into the mouths of these actors? Unclear. Given that no one is playing a character from the musical, what is the actors’ relationship to one another meant to be? Ditto. Fish has uprooted these songs from their original context without planting them in a solid new one. (Music arrangements are by Daniel Kluger and Nathan Koci, vocal arrangements by Koci and Fish, orchestrations by Kluger. The music director is Sean Peter Forte.)

On a set by Amy Rubin whose main feature is a kinetic curtain of golden fringe that we see stagehands lower so it puddles on the floor and raise so it spins in the air, Fish seems more interested in exploring architectural space and the geometry of bodies within it than he is in communicating with audience members. Who, depending on where they’re sitting, can’t necessarily see the parts of the show happening in the wings.

Is this chilly production — which boasts choreography by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the Urban Bush Women founder, but is hardly rife with dance — an album in three dimensions? Is it a music video? As striking as “Most Happy” is to look at (lighting is by Thomas Dunn, costumes are by Terese Wadden), it feels like something less alive than theater, and less shared.

In a Q. and A. in the digital program, Fish says that the show — seen in an earlier version last year at Bard SummerScape, with many design elements not yet in place — is ideally “a proposition or a provocation to the audience that asks ‘What happens when this person sings this song in this space with these people?’”

It’s an interesting question, but he doesn’t help us to hazard a guess. He is provoking his spectators, absolutely, but to what end?

Next door on Williamstown’s smaller Nikos Stage, Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Man of God” (through Friday) builds and builds, bringing its audience along on an unsettling, darkly comic ride. Not that a plot summary suggests hilarity.

A pastor (Albert Park) has taken four high school girls from his California church on a mission trip to Bangkok. He has also hidden a camera in their bathroom, the discovery of which, as the play begins, throws the teenagers into crisis — inciting some of them into thoughts of murdering this supposedly holy man who took such advantage of their trust.

“If you read the Bible,” one says, “it’s full of examples. People get killed for a lot less.”

At 15 and 16, the girls have little in common beyond their church. Jen (Emma Galbraith) is a brainy, ambitious feminist; Mimi (Erin Rae Li) is a knee-jerk rebel with a fondness for four-letter words. Samantha (Shirley Chen at the performance I saw) is naïve but more intelligent than the others give her credit for, while Kyung-Hwa (Helen J Shen, who took over the role on July 16, the day I saw the show) is deeply conservative, keen to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt.

Directed by Maggie Burrows on a messily lived-in hotel room set by Se Hyun Oh, “Man of God” could use some tightening, in both text and performance. But it’s a play whose potency accumulates as it balances ordinary adolescent bickering with stomach-dropping realizations. We see the girls’ illusions crumble as they consider the common ground between lurid sexual exploitation and quieter, more insidious predation.

It’s a smart and thoughtful play, with a wordless, minutes-long penultimate scene that’s a tour de force of tension: the girls packing their suitcases to go home, radiating fury and betrayal. And the revenge fantasies that lead up to it? They’re lots more fun than contemplated homicide ought to be.

All of which sparks its own kind of post-show chatter — people heading to their cars, eagerly asking one another: “Would you have killed him?”

Man of God

Through July 22 on the Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.; wtfestival.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Most Happy in Concert

Through July 31 on the Main Stage, Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.; wtfestival.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

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