The Bite That Burns is a musical staged on the set of a movie. As the show opens, talking is heard briefly in the darkness before the lights come up on the protagonist Blake Steel. Steel stands center stage looking directly at a camera (the audience). As he tries to get his lines just right, a production crew tries desperately to shape him into a star by advising him over a loudspeaker.
Before Steel gets the lines right, his agent, the great and mysteriously named Kevin Kavannaugh, walks on stage to have a talk with him. Kavannaugh tells Steel to go, he leaves the stage, and then the agent talks directly to the center audience, as if the camera is now filming her. “It only takes one,” she explains, and the lights go out. The orchestra, placed high on a catwalk upstage, masked by the skyline of AnyTown, USA, plays the show’s overture for around 10 minutes in almost complete darkness.
Already, this is pretty detached theater, especially for the relatively intimate Downstage. The overture, almost apologetic in its strict allegiance to musical convention, seems to take the place of a film’s opening credits. Though it is pleasant to listen to and serves its purpose as a teaser summary of the show’s major numbers, it brings the show to a halt before it ever really begins. The audience meets Blake and Kevin, two intriguing characters, and then is forced to wait a substantial amount of time before it sees them again. It is an unfortunate way to start things, insofar as it already sets the musical up as a challenge to the audience’s attention span and emotional involvement.
However, this musical, a senior thesis project by Lee-hom Wang ‘98, which is admittedly based on his “personal experience,” does start rolling and gains speed with each new song. The story is a standard tale of the evils of fame with a few surprises thrown in. Blake Steel (Seb Arcelus ‘99), a humble hometown kid with charm to spare, is finally getting his break in a questionably edgy movie called The Bite That Burns.
Steel must wrestle with the usual conflicting attachments: the slimy devil-agent Kevin (a womanâ€”it took me about thirty minutes to figure out the name, and when I finally did, I realized there was nothing to figure out) and her smarmy partner-in-crime John Wilson; the naive and beautiful girlfriend Vienna (it also took me a while to figure out the name here, but for different reasons); the ever-disapproving gay brother Tom; and the untouchable and always overshadowing gold-standard star Fargo Phillips. These characters, accompanied by a chorus of about 15 singers and dancers, sweep in and out of Blake’s life, as he gets more and more famous and more and more indulgent. He must learn to accept fame and keep a grasp on the past he knows and loves.
The main problem with the show is the detached action which makes the beginning so slow. The music and the book are fine, but they do not fit very well into a cohesive unit. Wang pushes the limits in his audacity, but not so much in his attention to form. He is not afraid to throw in as many musical genres as possible (hard electric rock, blues breakdowns, techno, swanky New York jazz). Some of the songs are really quite lovely, but the resulting product is just that: a lot of different genres patched together.
At the beginning of Act II, for example, Blake is swamped by New York reporters in a humorous staging slightly reminiscent of the musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s. When the reporters exit, he sings a soliloquy to a sweeping Philip Glass-esque techno-beat. On their own, both scenes are musically very clever and even catchy, but their sequence makes little sense. The music, ideally, should inform the action and then sweep along with it. (Incidentally, the addition of techno is a brave and welcome one, and I would have loved for it to have been expanded and used more.)
The performances are, for the most part, a lot of fun. Arcelus is absolutely wonderful as Blake. He is a truly musical actor, charming and handsome with a beautifully confident voice. Katie Teel ‘98, as the golden-locked Vienna, is good in a somewhat flat role. Her voice and acting style are not flashy, but then neither is the part (it is the most one standard of all). Her best moments come in her fights with Blake. You can feel the tension seething through her teeth. Their fight at the end of Act I is one of the best numbers in the showâ€”innovative and electric.
Lindsay Hatton ’00 as Kevin Kavannaugh is a strange, flowy she-beast whose motives are never made completely clear. The role is played with almost too much slickness, with a few refreshing choices. She is flanked by Ben Monnie ‘98, whose John Wilson is a super-creepy East German Bill Gates. Blake’s brother Tom, played with flair by Matthew Sandoval ‘99, is a hollow character who seems somewhat stock these days. His function seems to be sassiness, and, in conveying this, he is mostly successful. His drag sequences with Robert McElmurry ‘01 and Justin Deichman ‘01are pretty cheapâ€”guys in dressesâ€”but good for some giggles.
Unfortunately, in the Thursday performance much of what Sandoval or Hatton sang was hard to decipher, as they were either drowned out by the sometimes overbearing orchestra or hushed by the flaky body microphones. Rob Seitelman ‘01, as crazy old Fargo Phillips (think Robert DeNiro in about 40 years), gives a simply manic performance, going over the top and then some. He is helped by an absolutely brilliant piece of make-up/costuming. It supplied for me the biggest laugh of the night. With a little bit more reserve, the part could be even funnier. The chorus is kinetic and full of musical talent, giving a few really fun cameos.
Jeff Herzog ‘00 and Grace Rubenstein ‘01’s simple and colorful lighting design complements the subtly slick set designed by Dawn Nelson ‘00 very well. The sound is a bit more problematic. The orchestra and chorus are rarely balanced with each other. Hearing the singers in a musical is essentialâ€”that same old problem with cohesion. Fortunately, Will Rawls’ whimsical choreography is there to help get the message across. The last song in “Jook’s Bar,” with a bit more precision, could be a bona fide dance showstopper.
The show needs some tightening. But some sequences are fantastic. “A Pleasant Flight” and “L.A. Montage” stand out as pristine examples of the marriage of music and theater, especially in Wang’s gorgeous compositions for the violinâ€”eerily precise and then busily frantic. But there needs to be better balancing, to make it just that much more heartfelt. Though this is supposedly a personal story, it does not feel that way. Musicals are bizarre: with just the right bit of dance or the right chord, the earth can be moved. The Bite That Burns is not there yet, but there is definitely the possibility for some major tremors.