Unfocused storytelling sinks ‘Sunfish’
STONEHAM — Audiences rarely have a chance to see a new musical take its first breath because the commitment of time and resources is beyond the means of most theater companies. Stoneham Theatre should be commended for mounting the world premiere of “Sunfish,’’ but in spite of the valiant efforts of director Caitlin Lowans and her talented ensemble, this production drowns in a sea of musical theater references, overwritten lyrics, and unfocused storytelling.
Composer Hyeyoung Kim and lyricist Michael Cooper have created some strong characters, but they haven’t yet found an effective musical structure. The duo is most obviously influenced by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s “Once on This Island,’’ which is not a bad thing, but it leaves “Sunfish’’ without its own identity.
Based on a Korean folktale, “Sunfish’’ follows a young girl and her blind father who must beg for food and a place to stay. When the girl, Aheh, learns she can make a miracle happen, she sacrifices her life to restore her father’s sight. Her love for her father earns the respect of the god of the sea and she is revived, marries a king, her father’s sight is restored, and nearly all of them live happily ever after. That’s a lot to cram into two hours, and “Sunfish’’ never finds a comfortable rhythm.
Luckily, Lowans has gathered a terrific ensemble for this production, including Rocio Del Mar Valles as Aheh, David L. Jiles Jr. as her father, and Vanessa Schukis as the villainess Madame Omi. They are supported by a chorus of storytellers who take on a variety of roles, from villagers to jellyfish.
The first act carefully develops the relationship between Aheh and her father and their struggle to survive. But the focus on character slows the story, and some judicious pruning could give the act some much needed urgency.
Act II is full of transformations and resolutions that come out of nowhere, and Kim’s music strains even the most talented singers, forcing them to shriek and shout for a song’s climax. There’s also a “Makeover’’ number that feels completely extraneous, and detracts from the notion that Aheh’s honesty and pure heart are the sources of her beauty. By the time we get to “Awkward,’’ a confession by the King (a wonderfully sincere Ara Morton) of his attraction to Aheh, so much has been invested in reuniting father and daughter, there’s no room for a believable love story.
Kim and Cooper have also not yet found a comfortable way of pairing the lyrics with the music. The meter is often strained and when it isn’t we’re left with such rhymes as “We are blind and so excited/ If you’re blind then you’re invited.’’ (Don’t ask.)
To cover the many locations, set and lighting designer Christopher Ostrom’s simple, two-tier set of unadorned panels provides a flexible backdrop for a variety of scenes. His lighting shifts to identify each scene and offers great spots for shadow puppets and silhouettes. Lowans’s ability to keep her actors moving through the space helps a script that often doesn’t flow.
“Sunfish’’ should have a life beyond the Stoneham Theatre production, but only if the creative team can find the heart of their story.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.