When folk-rock band The Lisps, helmed by César Alvarez and Sammy Tunis, assemble in front of the big curtain atop The Connelly Theater’s stage, they look like your average band: quirkily dressed, bantering amongst themselves and strumming out jaunty and conversational indie Americana-influenced tunes.
Soon, they begin to change their costumes and set up a story for us. The curtains draw back, and a massive set is revealed (compellingly designed by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders). This is no concert, but new musical Futurity, a co-production between Soho Rep and Ars Nova, directed by Soho Rep’s artistic director Sarah Benson. Originally conceived as Alvarez’s masters thesis at Bard College and then as a concept album by The Lisps, it centers around the correspondence between fictional Civil War solider Julian Munro (Alvarez) and real historical figure Ada Lovelace (Tunis), a female math genius who first theorized the possibility of a “computing machine.” As war begins to become a reality, they imagine the Steam Brain, a wooden steam-powered computing contraption that Julian hopes will help eradicate the institutional oppression and war that they find themselves surrounded by. Flanking the two central characters are soldiers, smartly wielding instruments instead of weapons.
It’s rare that a musical described as deviating from the musical genre of showtunes actually succeeds in doing so, but Futurity is one of those rare treats. Its willingness to place math, science, and inquiry on a pedestal is equally rare in musical theater, with The Lisps’s score transforming wordy ideas and complex terms into catchy musical romps. These songs are treated with such care that even the more twee material, such as an absurd ballad about every egg in the world breaking, becomes spine-chilling.
Behind all this is Futurity’s ensemble, a refreshingly diverse blend, largely made up of women and actors of color. This is all the more subversive considering the show takes place in Civil War-era America, which recalls smash hit musical Hamilton’s casting of actors of color as the Founding Fathers. Many of the performers have identities aside from “actor”– some direct and write and others are musicians. Alvarez and Tunis are typically very matter-of-fact with their delivery, letting the story, music, and visuals smartly supersede emotional displays. Like a band, the chorus has a successful synchronicity, both in more traditional theatrical moments and the times they unite as the backbone of the musical score.
Occasionally Alvarez and Tunis break character and return to their band banter mid-show, commenting as themselves on the story or the audience. This is mostly charming, providing a quaint respite from dramatics.
However, sometimes Futurity forgets what it has set up. According to the story, we are immersed in the Civil War. The show also dips its toes into issues of race and slavery, spearheaded powerfully by Karen Kandel as The General. However, this story sometimes gets overshadowed by the central plot of the Steam Brain. A particularly powerful sequence is when these two plots collide, and the soldiers’s dismantling of the Tennessee-Virginia Railroad (a real historical event) and the reveal of the fictional Steam Brain become one and the same. The few theatrical moments Benson has crafted that remind us of the dangers of war are smart and stirring, but there are times after these larger moments when we return to simple folk songs and mathematical musings and they don’t have quite the same power that they used to. But, they always return. “War is a failure of imagination,” our protagonist Julian declares, so it is only natural that the imagined machine eclipses the bloody reality.
Not all the typical components of a musical succeed in Futurity; much of the choreography peppered through the piece felt a bit silly and occasionally the story got lost in itself. However, this is not an ordinary musical following ordinary formulas; the heart of Futurity does not lie in the sometimes complex stories it is trying to tell, but rather how the people onstage tell these stories. As the show cycles in and out of theatricality, it emphasizes how every cast member is crucial to the piece unfolding. Without Alvarez and Tunis there would be no central characters (or musical at all), without the chorus soldiers there would be no supporting story (or band). The magnificent Steam Brain cleverly acts as scenic element, plot point, and percussive instrument. At the end of it all, I felt not just as if I experienced characters going through a journey, but a bunch of artists and creators showing me this delightful and odd thing they had made together.
After the show had ended, some stayed for a discussion about new musicals with Alvarez and Fun Home writer Lisa Kron, moderated by editor-in-chief of American Theater Magazine Rob Weinert-Kendt. Alvarez, musician-turned-theater artist (who also led a master class on creating game-based theater that I participated in last year) spoke of the American musical, an often-overlooked form, with true admiration.
“One of the things that’s amazing about musicals is just watching all those people do a thing. Dancing, and singing, and playing instruments, and speaking the dialogue and acting and dressing up in costumes and moving around and lights… It’s riveting to see that many people do that,” He says. “It’s a display of community. And in that way, musicals can be proposals for what is possible within communities and within groups of people.” If shows like Futurity are any indication of the future of musical theater, I would advise those who typically eschew the stage to perhaps take a closer look at the surprises it may bring.
Continues through November 15 at The Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th Street, East Village. Tickets are $35-60 and can be purchased here.
‘Futurity‘ is written by César Alvarez with music by Alvarez and The Lisps, and directed by Sarah Benson, in association with Carole Shorenstein Hays. With choreography by David Neumann, set design by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders, percussion and contraption design by Eric Farber, lighting design by Yi Zhao, costume design by Emily Orling, sound design by Matt Tierney, props design by Noah Mease, fight choreography by J. David Brimmer, music direction by César Alvarez, and dramaturgy by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Featuring César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, and Sammy Tunis.