Writing a rock musical that focuses on being kidnapped in a war-torn country is just about as daring as breaking into song at gunpoint. The creators of Hostage Song use an appealingly fresh approach. To counter the trembling pleas we see on television, they give the show's captives a voice that is both comic and a little rock n' roll, while presenting most of the action as role-playing and dreaming, rather than suffering. This leads to several touching and unexpectedly humorous moments. It's an impressive achievement based on concept alone. But the show doesn’t venture beyond the conceptual. Stale character development and hit-and-miss writing hold this production back, leaving generic stories and the shell of a good show where an inventive portrait could have been.
Emphasizing transcendence, the show applies a light tone to the dark situation. In the first scene, the captives – Jennifer (Hanna Cheek) and Jim (Paul Thureen) – are playing “I Spy” in their cell. They’re also blindfolded. They pass the time through games, memories, and imagining various scenarios. Clay McLeod Chapman, who wrote the spoken portions of the play, shows real skill here, offering convincing snippets of marriage, parenthood, and budding romance in very short sequences. A scene in which Jim imagines talking to his son (a wonderfully versatile Abe Goldfarb) about girls is funny, warm, and probably five minutes long.
However, give Chapman an extended timeframe and melodramatic flourishes rise up to quash the beautifully simple prose (the old adage of "show, don't tell" comes to mind). When Jennifer remarks how her dead translator's blood remains on her face, the description is grounded in the sensual: "His blood's become brittle. Crackles across my cheeks, my forehead. Whenever I open my mouth, I can feel it crumble along the lining of my lips." Yet, when she slips into talking about what it represents, the metaphorical commentary distances us from a moment that had been so powerfully immediate.
The overdramatic portions are awkward because most of the play relies on restrained emotions. Instead of hammering away at fear or dread, Kyle Jarrow's song lyrics, for instance, tend to focus on staying strong and wishing for the happiness of loved ones. This hopeful tone blends well with Jarrow’s percussive and energetic music. The four-man band – cleverly located behind sliding black panels that reveal and conceal them at the right moments– bounces to the beats. In one fist-pumping anthem, Jennifer sings about her resilience:
"She'd find a way to show the world the Last thing that she needs at night are Lullabies with silly words like Don't be scared now Jenny baby"
Even when addressing the hostages' tragic situation with the music, Jarrow makes the language so nonchalant that it's almost comical. Jim sings about getting beaten and threatened with death, saying "Well, that's at least the gist of it," adding, "it sure doesn't look good." Really, Jim?
By forgoing the natural reactions of fear or anger, the creators face an uphill battle in making Jim and Jennifer seem real. Instead of unique personas that might show us the humanity behind the blindfolds, the characters are more like Jarrow and Chapman's playthings – pieces in a game. Not to say that Cheek and Thureen don’t give it their all: limited by blindfolds, ropes around their hands, and an incredibly restrained approach, they still offer touching performances.
But this does little to add the dimensions and depth that the script lacks. Their backgrounds seemed culled from a warehouse of familiar motifs (a lover coming to your window; eating ice cream as a kid) never telling a truly unique story. Yes, it's good for them to have memories to which the audience can relate, but if Chapman and Jarrow want to show that hostages have something to say other than “help me,” it would’ve been nice to meet people rather than archetypes.
When it hits the mark, however, Hostage Song dredges up perspectives that should prove historically interesting long after our current war has ended. Take, for instance, the issue of terrorism in the YouTube era. In the same monologue, Jim's son talks about being able to watch both porn and his father's decapitation on the Internet. He describes the latter scene with scientific detail: "You can see the flesh separate into little dots. The bleeding seems to seep into the computer screen...A million pixels channel his blood down the front of his jumpsuit."
This is the show's greatest strength: presenting gruesome scenarios in a plain yet poetic style. If only the characters were drawn this well, perhaps appearing to actually be made of flesh and blood, rather than just a series of methodically assembled dots.