“LaChiusa writes no-holds-barred musical theater that refuses to cater to the tired businessman, but he pushes the envelope further with See What I Wanna See. His efforts, to some extent expected, are dangerous, leaving the viewer uncomfortable at times. The music is striking and beautiful, but it sometimes seems its sole purpose is to distance itself from popular music as much as possible.”
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A new Michael John LaChiusa musical, See What I Wanna See is based on a collection of Japanese stories, one of which features an alleged murder. Witnesses and perpetrators narrate the events before, during, and after the murder but offer different versions of the events, with unreliable results. An example of postmodern and intellectual musical theater, See What I Wanna See reaches fruition and full potential during segments discussing murder, a crime of the heart for the colorful characters LaChiusa adapts.
“A lie becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie,” Idina Menzel sings in the opening song. Titled “Kesa,” the song presents a woman in Medieval Japan, with staccato footsteps, immaculate kimono, and brittle black hair. The abovementioned proverb she sings is poignant and its simple language is set to music Menzel sings with haunting but beautiful effortlessness. Her character, Kesa, is determined to murder her lover, Morito (Marc Kudish), during one of their scheduled lovemaking sessions. Morito does not know that death waits, however, and Kesa is successful in executing her plan, executing him.
Another murder occurs centuries later in New York, and the viewer watches as witnesses are called into a 1950s police interrogation room to provide sworn testimonies. A man is dead, and finding the murderer (or murderers) is the mission the characters prevent the police and the viewer from completing.
The viewer meets a nightclub singer (Menzel) and her controlling husband (Kudish). The couple attends a screening of the Japanese film Rashomon at a cinema where a janitor remembers seeing them. The couple then leaves the cinema, meeting a thief (Aaron Lohr) with a sexual appetite needing fulfillment. The thief leads them to Central Park, where he beats and bounds the husband before raping the wife.
Or so testifies the thief, one of five characters with stories to tell. His account is one of five about the events from the night in question. What is more, the wife testifies she kills her husband in self-defense—despite the fact she begs him to kill her, he proceeds to do so without flinching, and his lack of hesitation warrants her killing him. The janitor does not witness the murder and does not mention the wife in his statement at all. A beautiful woman is incapable of committing a heinous crime, he reasons. A medium, whose human form the departed husband enters during an epiphanic ritual, tells police that the wife and thief are lovers. In the end, that the husband is murdered is irrelevant, and that stories of passion, murder, and love collide is what remains salient.
“She Looked at Me,” the song the thief sings to give good reason for rape, is stunning. Aaron Lohr puts his heart into his performance, giving his all. A strong actor, he is the highlight of See What I Wanna See. His presence breaks the fourth wall and enables him to communicate with the viewer on a level rendering his account of the night in question all-pervading. In other words, he did not, would not, commit murder.
“Quartet” is beautiful, another powerful song in terms of plot, music, and character. The marquee of the theater that screens Rashomon is missing an “A,” and thus spells “R SHOMON.” During the quartet, the missing “A” becomes a scarlet letter, an embodiment of both vice and the alleged adulterous relationship the wife and thief share. Or so laments her husband through the medium. He and the medium sing words, all beginning with the letter “A,” that represent vice and his anger, while the wife and thief profess their love for each other.
In Act II, “Kesa” is reprised as the opening song. This time titled “Morito,” the song becomes a duet between the Medieval Japanese pair. This time Morito sees Kesa draw her dagger and the scene ends with the dagger pointed in his face.
The three abovementioned scenes—two in Medieval Japan, one in 1950s New York—make an engaging work of musical theater. In effect, the songs “Kesa” and “Morito” represent scenes from Rashomon (the film the married couple sees), framing and dictating the actions of the characters that exist in the offscreen world. LaChiusa is unsatisfied with the three scenes, however, and presents an additional tale about the quest for truth during the remainder of Act II.
In the final and weakest scene that follows, we meet a priest experiencing faith-related problems in 2005. Joking, he convinces New Yorkers (a news reporter, a homeless CPA, an actress) that the Second Coming is imminent. The climax of the scene is the song “The Greatest Practical Joke,” when an eccentric Italian woman berates the priest, her nephew, for his religious convictions. Religion and God are the greatest practical joke, she bemoans. Despite an interesting premise, the scene does not sustain the interest of the viewer and distances him.
LaChiusa writes no-holds-barred musical theater that refuses to cater to the tired businessman, but he pushes the envelope further with See What I Wanna See. His efforts, to some extent expected, are dangerous, leaving the viewer uncomfortable at times. The music is striking and beautiful, but it sometimes seems its sole purpose is to distance itself from popular music as much as possible. The title number, which the wife sings as part of her nightclub act, is unlikable, unlike the all-the-rage standards singers sang in the 1950s. What is more, the music evokes the atonal operas of Dimitri Shostakovich and Alban Berg but is inconsistent in eliciting emotional responses from the viewer like the music from Wozzeck, for example.
In the end, no matter how unbecoming or daring, the scenes from Medieval Japan and 1950s New York succeed alongside each other, while the scene set in 2005 neither engages the viewer like the first three nor captures their sense of drama.