Imagine this: You’ve just arrived at a party, and the first person you see is the most beautiful human being you’ve ever encountered. This dazzler sees you, too; and walks over to you with two glasses of champagne, one of which ends up in your hand. Then this stunning creature speaks. And seems to sing.
And speaks some more.
And as you sip your champagne and listen to this gorgeous vision, it slowly comes to you: This magnificent sight, this bright, shimmering being … is a crushing bore.
So is it with Vanishing Point.
It didn’t have to be that way. Liv Cummins and Rob Hartmann’s musical has three fascinating subjects, all joined by a mystery that might make for a fascinating evening. Those subjects are evangelist/faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, who vanished for three weeks in May 1926; mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who vanished for 11 days in December 1926; and aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who vanished for good in July 1937.
On Nick Francone’s beautiful, abstract set, these three women — played splendidly by Lauren L. Wood (Christie), Victoria Adams-Zischke (Earhart), and Kathleen Brooke Davis (McPherson) — show us scenes from their respective biographies and sing lovely, glimmering songs that at first delight the ear. But as life sketch follows sketch and elegant melody follows melody, it slowly dawns on us that all of it isn’t adding up to much, that the biographical segments are too brief to be very meaningful, and the songs are increasingly sounding the same.
And when we finally get to the crux of things — to the disappearances of the three women — the author has little more to offer than an unrevealing rendezvous in a place where “time has stopped.” Then we’re on to an inconclusive ending, as unimportantly comely as everything else, and the pageant is over.
It was oh so attractive.
A few key sequences linger, tantalizing us with their unfulfilled promises. There’s a nice scene where McPherson challenges the pieties of a preacher, then finds herself becoming a preacher, and a famous one, attracting thousands. Now that’s material enough for a play of its own, but it’s soon dropped and forgotten in the rush to keep things moving.
There’s a segment during which Christie discovers that her husband has run off with another woman, but aside from providing the occasion for the best song of the evening (in which the mystery writer fantasizes about poisoning the lovers’ “Afternoon Tea”) the adultery never really makes the transit from personal trauma to dramatic event.
And just about everything in the Earhart sections begs for greater attention — from the days when she succeeded because she physically resembled Charles Lindbergh to her fear, in later times, of losing her celebrity. These and several other segments might have made for a riveting show. But sadly, they don’t.
The three actress/singers deserve praise, even if the script they enact is problematic. Adams-Zischke plays Earhart as a kind of bourgeois maverick, in love with flying, all right, but more the Junior Club type than a grease monkey in a hangar. Davis as McPherson is easily the most formidable of the three, muscling her way into American religious history with a smile and a Bible, and accepting her healing abilities with the same bravada she exhibits everywhere.
Wood as Christie is the obsessive type, fascinated with plot twists and red herrings, and always writing her next novel even when she seems to be at rest. Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni tries courageously to avoid confusion when the actresses double as minor characters, but there’s confusion nonetheless.
The players are attractively costumed by Adrin Erra Puente, and the lush pianism behind the songs is provided by talented musical director/keyboards player Vince di Mura. All three actresses have fine voices.
But how was it possible to turn so much useful, even fascinating material to so trivial a purpose?
I came away from Vanishing Point with little more than the feeling that I’d like to know more about these women, McPherson especially. So I looked her up on Wikipedia as soon as I got home; and found more satisfaction in those few moments than at any time during the musical. Surely that shouldn’t have been the case. Surely the whole point of theater is to make its characters more alive than some words on a page.
Vanishing Point instead says next to nothing.
But boy, does it look pretty the whole time it’s speaking.