What is being billed as the first musical in the 30-year history of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival was worth the wait. Although Kevin Kostic's "Unraveled on the Gravel": A New Musical tends to be more earnest than accomplished, there is definitely potential in this show at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.
Kostic, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, has a pretty good handle on song-writing. His troubled characters usually glide with ease from dialogue into songs that express their personalities. The thematic bluntness of the songs and the insistent repetition of certain musical phrases make for an obvious message delivery system, but the show's heart is in the right place.
This musical's occasional choppiness in terms of song duration and scenic transitions isn't surprising when you consider that Kostic has ambitiously constructed the story in such a way that it takes these characters back in time from age 28 in the present to their younger selves at 22 and then 18.
This backwards chronological movement is facilitated by a youthful cast whose actual ages fall within that age range. If anything, the actors are most at ease when playing spirited 18-year-olds, whereas they self-consciously seem to be playing old-timers of 28.
As for the story itself, it's best not to say too much about it, owing to the revelations that are made once the characters are seen at a younger age.
It's safe to say that the main character, Ray (Josh Kemper), is a psychologically disturbed man in the first scene. In what perhaps qualifies as a first in the long history of theater, this show's protagonist is afflicted by what might be described as compulsive hitchhiking. A series of brief vignettes has Ray hopping into one car after another. It's probably not the safest of hobbies, but the non-individualized drivers are just a plot device to demonstrate that 28-year-old Ray's overactive thumb signals are a sign that something is wrong with his mental wiring.
Once Ray and the show around him settle down a bit, the ensuing scenes in a Wildwood, N.J. vacation home seem relatively normal rather than, er, wild. Ray is nervous about getting married in a matter of hours, and his fiancee, Amber (Sarah Jachelski), is understandably rattled by his behavior. Likewise, Ray's friends, Marlon (Nick Huber) and Wayne (Mike Milillo), are concerned about Ray's unusually bad case of pre-wedding jitters.
A broad hint that this is more than just an instance of a reluctant bridegroom comes from the presence of a mysterious character, Wricks (Christopher Jones), about whom it's best not to say anything other than that he takes the mundane drama into a more metaphysical realm.
Most audience members are likely to figure out Wricks's identity and symbolic purpose rather early in the show, but that's for you to do on your own. In any event, this character inevitably makes for ponderous scripting.
Despite this musical's sometimes-bumpy construction and its thematic overkill, the characters and their revelation-laden story have enough substance to keep you watching as you move back in time. Considering the many potential pitfalls of creating a new musical, "Unraveled on the Gravel" has integrity.
Just as the musical itself needs some adjustments, the Spotlighters production, directed by Michael Tan, can be a rough ride in places.
The evening gets off to a musically poor start, with the vocalists failing to rise above the tightly coordinated little band comprised of guitarist Brennan Kuhns, bass player Elliott Peeples and percussionist Christopher "Lucky" Marino. This production is indeed lucky to have a band that quickly makes stylistic transitions from rock to country and western, but sometimes the musicians overwhelm the already-shaky singers.
What hurts this production more than anything is that the singing is rarely more than competent. Christopher Jones is the notable exception because he displays confidence as both an actor and a singer. His fellow cast members need better enunciation and vocal projection.
An encouraging sign that they're capable of a fast learning curve is that they seemed more vocally at ease as the evening moved forward, meaning backward in this temporal case. As Ray hitches more rides on stage this month, the theatrical seasoning seems likely to have them all sounding better than they do now.
"Unraveled on the Gravel": A New Musical runs through Aug. 21 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, at 817 St. Paul Street in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general, $18 for senior citizens, $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun