First time musical theatre composer and lyricist, Ted Shen’s autobiographical musical, A Second Chance, deals with situations we all can relate to in some way – loss, love, and regaining one’s life after a tumultuous change. For this reason, it is very accessible to audiences witnessing it at Signature Theatre. In the musical, introspective Dan (Brian Sutherland) is coping with the sudden loss of his wife and slowly, but surely, realizes he can love again when he meets Jenna (Diane Sutherland), an energetic and emotional woman who is also reeling from a divorce and questioning whether finding “Mr. Right” is really possible at middle age.
The story, at its core, is really nothing new. So many musicals have dealt with these themes and some have done it in a more interesting way (Adam Gwon’s very recent Ordinary Days comes to mind). Nonetheless, Shen’s story is, at times, very touching- particularly a scene in the second act where Dan truly realizes that it is OK to move on and live again – though the memory of his wife will always be present. It never gets to the point where it is too melodramatic and for that, Shen should be commended.
Though the story is very simple and straightforward, the music that Shen offers to enhance its telling is most definitely not simplistic even if it is, at times, repetitive. Though at times he tries (perhaps too hard) to mimic great composers like Stephen Sondheim (who he references in one song), he does reveal himself to be a talented composer – especially given that this is his first attempt writing a musical. Among the standouts are “Damaged Goods” and “Ghosts.” His interesting melodies are expertly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and a five piece band, under the direction of Zak Sandler, plays them with great ease and precision.
The music is the strong point in this piece. Though the lyrics do move the story forward, which is important seeing as this is largely a song cycle, Mr. Shen might benefit from a collaborator to make the lyrics more complex and interesting and improve some rhyming structures.
Real life married couple Brian and Diane Sutherland are tasked with bringing Shen’s very personal characters to life on the stage. The Sutherlands’ connection and chemistry with one another is apparent from the first scene and carries through the short 75 minute chamber musical. The decision to cast the couple works out very well and adds some realism to the piece, which could, in lesser hands, play out as a maudlin New York City fairy tale.
Performance wise, (at least in the performance we saw) Brian Sutherland gave a stronger performance both from a vocal and acting perspective. His rendition of “Damaged Goods” was meaningful, emotional, and expertly sung. His character is much more fleshed out and he definitely has more material to work with than his female counterpart Thankfully, he avoided making the character to be too much of a caricature of a grieving husband. Diane Sutherland (at least in the performance we saw) struggled with the vocal demands of her role and sometimes played the character a bit too broad given the performance takes place in Signature’s more intimate Ark theatre. Nonetheless, she appropriately conveyed Jenna’s love for Dan and the emotional struggles of wanting love yet allowing the one she loves to come to terms with loss.
Jonathan Butterell uses a minimal approach to stage the show – a bare stage with a few tables and chairs as props, and a white backdrop to present Robert Brill’s projections. The black and white projections adequately establish locations from Dan’s apartment (filled with pictures of family, including his deceased wife), to a party, a bar, Central Park, and a therapist office. They most certainly do not detract from the presentation of the story- a trap that some design teams fall into when they try to incorporate too many flashy projections into a rather intimate show. As this piece was first presented at Joe’s Pub in New York City, this “less is more” staging concept works for the material since it does not require an elaborate set or flashy lights and sound.
Though the show moves quickly, we do question the decision to present the play in two acts. With an intermission, this 75-minute musical is stretched to 90 minutes, but the artistic reason for the separation is unclear as the “act break” seems arbitrary at best. The show could have been done as a one act and have the same effect. Overall, there is potential in this show and Mr. Shen should be commended for making a foray into the difficult world that is writing a musical.
Running Time: 90 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.
A Second Chance plays through December 11, 2011, at Signature Theatre- 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets call 703-820-9771 or purchase them online.
Read Brian and Diane Sutherland’s ‘A Quick 5‘ with Elliot Lanes.
A preview video of A Second Chance.
Read Joel Markowitz’s interview with Ted Shen – composer, lyricist, and book writer of A Second Chance.