By Jennifer Mustoe
Relative Space–An Atypical Musical is a musical like I’ve never seen before. Presented at Liahona Academy in Pleasant Grove (a gorgeous space, by the way), audiences will find themselves given the opportunity of experiencing the beautiful story by Melissa Leilani Larson and hard rock music that accompanies Relative Space written and orchestrated by Kjersti Long and Jeremy Long.
Relative Space has one main theme: depression/suicide. That being said, those words are never clearly spoken. This is the theme, that basically mental illness and suicidal ideation aren’t actually addressed in society or ever (or especially) in families. Relative Space chronicles three generations of families, and more specifically the mother and daughter in each generation. The play begins with Elizabeth Golden as Shannon and Leah Carr as her daughter Britt and it is set in modern day. We know this because the decor of this set is time specific, and these aspects change as we go back in time. Kudos to set designer Brad Shelton for his creativity and authenticity in staging the kitchens perfectly. I’ve seen each of these iterations in real life, and he is spot on.
Both Shannon and Britt struggle with depression. What they reveal onstage is the real deal–sleeping all the time, feeling listless, unmotivated, having no value, and so. much. guilt. I know what they are showing is sadly very authentic because this is a road I’ve been down myself. These two actresses are excruciatingly expressive and believable. I felt their pain. As they try to navigate their own mental illness, each feels a certain responsibility to put on an “okay” face for the other and the dad in this vignette, played by M. Chase Grant. Dad’s strategy for dealing with his troubled family is to be the “coach.” He is upbeat! He has plans! He can make all the sad go away! Grant is touchingly true to life, showing how depression affects the whole family, not just those who are suffering from it.
Golden and Carr then become the mother of Shannon (Britt’s grandma), and the grandmother of Shannon (Britt’s great-grandma). Each generation of the women in this family all struggle with depression and great-grandmother actually takes her life, though it is not seen. This hit me hard. I remember my own grandmother and my mother struggling with depression. It has been passed on to me (nature or nurture? Probably both.) And this mental illness has passed on to my grown children. It is cunning and baffling. Each of the mother/daughter storylines are similar and again, as the set moves on the stage in a circle, each generation’s kitchen decorated differently (look carefully at the detail. It’s very cool) the story unfolds.
Costumes by La Beene, Hair/Makeup Design by Courtney Gilmore, and Dramaturg Janine Sobeck Knighton bring Relative Space complete clarity to the audience. Light designer Lucas Russel brings us a different mood for each vignette in an effective and important way. My friend that came with me said many of the details on the sets resonated with her, and kept nudging me and saying, “Yep, yep, yep.”
Depression in Relative Space manifests itself with Larson’s beautiful script, but also the Movement Ensemble: Abigail Andrus, Lyric Ikeomu, Joleah Long (also as Captain Hook in Tinker Bell and Susan Ford in First Daughter Suite), and Addie Wray Scott, and choreographed by Joshua Long and Sophie Greenwood, provide a visual depiction of the internal struggles these families experience. The show begins with Shannon and Britt being wrapped in large blankets, so interesting because blankets are supposed to be warm and comforting, but in Relative Space, they clutch the characters so the women can barely move. This, my friends, is depression.
The husbands in the other generations are Drew (Jeff Denison)–a jolly rather myopic fellow, and Robert (Ben Cummins) who is probably considered a jerk because he leaves his depression-soaked wife. This too, my friends, is what depression can do. Sometimes it’s just too much and the family leaves and/or sometimes the ill person takes their own life, and in this generation’s vignette, this is exactly what happens. Ex-husband comes to see their daughter, who isn’t at home at the moment. Mother has made food for him and waits and waits for him to arrive. Except when he gets there, naturally he’s already eaten. Mother continues to try to keep ex-husband occupied so he’ll stay and finally asks what happened, why did he leave. He heads for the door, turns back with a shake of his head, and bids her good-bye. And then we see her holding a bottle of pills.
Stage business like opening the window of the grandfather clock and crossing off days on a white board calendar tell us time is passing. Another metaphor. Time IS passing. And nobody’s getting better. Directors Shelby Noelle Gist and Joshua Long use a deft touch with this production, weaving the story’s rather sad message interspersed with glimmers of sweetness. In each family iteration, Art is prevalent and again, it’s a wonderful medium in helping those with mental illness. A caring, insightful addition and the directors showcase this in a lovely way.
This is an atypical musical, in that there is one singer (Kjersti Long) on a raised platform who adds narration and punch to the production. Music Director Jeremy Long, orchestrations by Zach Hansen (keyboard), and players guitar/vocals Riley Jackson, guitar Jacob Lambros, bass/vocals Avery Davis, 1st violin Kiska Schramm, 2nd violin Morgan Davis, viola/vocals Rebecca Suelzle, cello Valery Seegmiller, and drums Connor Rockwood bring us hard-hitting, in your face music that is meant to be unusual and startling. It is indeed.
The hope is that Relative Space–An Atypical Musical will find its way to Broadway. This is always a risk, a wish, a plan. The red carpet photo shoot at the beginning, the almost packed theater, the glam, and the excitement that swirled around this musical’s world premiere opening is a genuine indication that the people involved in this project mean business. I wish them all good luck in this intrepid journey. They’re talented artists with a message to share.
Creekside Theatre Fest presents Relative Space–An Atypical Musical, book by Melanie Leilani Larson, music and lyrics by Jeremy Long and Kjersti Long.
Liahona Preparatory Academy, 2464 W 450 S, Pleasant Grove, UT 84062
Thursday through Saturday through July 1, 2023 8:00 PM–no intermission
Creekside Theatre Fest Facebook Page