Although not in the script, I recall there is an audio introduction at the beginning of “Relapse! A New Musical” which invites the audience to have a sense of humor in spite of the fact that the proceedings take place during therapy sessions at a rehabilitation behavioral unit. I’d say I was already prepped to have a sense of humor by the title of the show alone.
There are four patients at the center of “Relapse! A New Musical”: Bryan, an actor and bulimic, Kendra, an aggressive abuse victim, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Melinda, a nervous and delicate schizophrenic, and newcomer Adam, an alcoholic serving a mandatory rehab stint due to a DUI.
Caring for these patients and leading them in their weekly rehab group therapy meetings are Nurse Margo and Dr. Carlisle.
As the play begins, sounds of a solo electric guitar snake their way onto the stage à la “JCS”; as the band begins to play, a rousing rock music tone is set.
The patients are introduced to us in their opening number, perpetually accompanied by the ghostly counterparts of their inner voices, a chorus referred to as ‘The Faceless’ or ‘The Intrusive’.
In short order, it becomes clear that “Relapse: A New Musical” is going to be an even better theatrical experience than the catchy but dismissive title predicts. Laughs are plenty, but the depth, sincerity, and gravity of the piece is what wins the day.
Kudos to Casting by Michael Cassara, CSA – the actors are terrific. Randall Scott Carpenter turns in a performance as Bryan that is self-effacing but passionate and inspiring. Jacob Ryan Smith as Adam is skeptical yet hopeful and endearing; he has us in his corner. Becca Suskauer’s Kendra is belligerent and fiery but her vulnerability is as palpable as her anger. Mia Cherise Hall as Melinda is uncertain of life but yearning to live. Ashley Alexandra’s portrayal as nurse Margot is fierce and full of heart, and Troy Valjean Rucker’s turn as Dr. Carlisle is conflicted but earnest. Vinny Celeiro, Audree Hedequist, Nicole Lamb, and Zummy Mohammed as The Intrusive are anything but faceless; their interwoven expressiveness, whether bitingly humorous or painfully venomous, is totally engaging.
Each actor is highly invested in their role and a terrific singer as well. At the beginning of every song the thought “OK, they can sing” occurs, which inevitably becomes “Oh, wow, they really can SING!” when their voices reach their distinctly bright, resonant, emotional pitches; a hoot or a holler inevitably erupts from the house.
The passionate songs in “Relapse! A New Musical” are lively and powerful, and poignant at the right times; they are a credit to music by Louis Josephson and lyrics by Josephson and J. Giachetti.
Overall, Giachetti’s book is thoughtful and inspiring; it reminds that blame and shame have no place in recovery, and that letting go of the past and stepping into the light of the present are key ingredients to any new beginning. The use of the ‘Greek chorus’, The Intrusive, is brilliantly clever, truly defining the ‘VIC’ (‘vicious inner critic’) in everyone. The arc of the piece which has the characters winning out over their VIC’s is heartening and joyous. The direction and choreography by Joey McKneely (assisted by Fréyani Patrice) is excellent and inventive.
There are some areas of the script which furrow the brow. For example, the character of Adam, a new arrival to the unit, says of Bryan, “I just met him. Why should it matter to me what he does?” yet earlier in the script he (Adam) complains about Bryan getting to leave rehab with “so he gets to go back to the real world, and we’re all stuck here?” They are ambivalent to each other at best, until suddenly they bond and sing “To Be a Man” together. It’s a great moment between them, although it feels fast and formulated. Speaking of this song, the title “To Be a Man” is tritely sexist and not as inclusive as the more universal message it truly wants to impart, which is “To Be Strong.” The fact that the song is being sung by two men makes it obvious they are singing about living up to the lifelong expectations of being men, but other listeners of the song could find more universal meaning if it wasn’t pigeonholed as being about men.
The Intrusive’s “crash course” on the four patients in “PSYCH 101” is a clever way to provide exposition on the four patients; however when it explicitly labels each of the characters with their official diagnosis (“bulimia nervosa”, “borderline personality disorder”, “schizophrenia”, “addiction” (alcoholic)), it invites the audience to stereotype the characters and separate themselves from them, where they might otherwise find identification. It would be ideal to let the audience draw its own conclusions based on the symptoms they see versus being told outright what the patients’ problems are. The Intrusive even sing:
BUT DON’T YOU WORRY ABOUT THE LABEL
‘CAUSE IN THE END, IT’S ALL OKAY
SOMETIMES WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL YOU
BUT TREAT THE SYMPTOMS ANYWAY
By the time The Intrusive sings this, the characters have already been officially labeled, and the audience has been told everything they need to think about them, instead of allowing the audience to identify with the characters over symptoms they might share.
The first scene of Act II, up to and including the song “A Second Look”, abruptly introduces the topics of bureaucratic failings and lack of funding at the unit. This departure from the more important themes of hope and recovery is disruptive and feels superfluous (sorry, Dr. Carlisle).
Lastly, the dialog between the two fantastic ending numbers “Taking Back Control” and “Calm in the Storm” feels obvious, didactic, and redundant to what the characters and audience are already taking away from the entire show, and especially these two songs.
These last observations should not discourage attending “Relapse! A New Musical”, which is delightful and enjoyable. This production is highly recommended, and I hope there will be a full cast recording to complement the concept album.
Relapse! A New Musical (through September 23, 2023)
Theatre Row, Theatre 5
410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit https://bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/relapse/
Running time: 110 minutes without intermission