“We can rebuild him. … We have the technology,” says a supporting character of the bionic main character in the television series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” But in the new Brownbrokers musical “We Can Rebuild Him,” running in Stuart Theater through March 11, the character being pieced back together is not robotic but human, and the key to his rebirth is his still-beating heart.
“It’s a really human story disguised in this science fiction exterior and when you peel that away … it’s really beautiful in a way,” said Talya Klein GS, the show’s director.
The new musical by Deepali Gupta ’12 is this year’s Brownbrokers biennial student-written musical. The selection process for the musical started in December 2010, and “We Can Rebuild Him” was one of two finalists chosen for staging in a workshop last May, according to Andy Hertz ’04, adjunct lecturer in theater arts and performance studies and the Brownbrokers’ musical director and faculty adviser.
“Everyone was captivated by how moving the story was even though it was so grotesque and so science-fictiony,” he said. “Everyone bought the story.”
Opening with a musical number and explanation of Sam’s (Lance Jabr ’12, Alexis Shusterman ’13 and Elias Spector-Zabusky ’15) death by dissection, the musical introduces the audience to the Whitman family on the 71st of 75 days in the “Sam Whitman Family Reconstruction Project.” Grace (Abby Colella ’12), Sam’s mother, reconstructs Sam with the hopes of bringing him back to life — and consequently getting her husband, who abandoned the family after Sam’s death, to return.
The Whitman family is consumed by the project, and its members have ritualized their lives around Sam’s beating heart, the key to his reconstruction. But their desperate attempts to bring back the Sam they once knew raises questions about their ability to move on and to stop making excuses about their lives.
Gupta said she crafted “We Can Rebuild Him” from the concept of a 10-minute, farcical play she wrote in high school.
“Almost everybody hated that awful little play, including me, but there was something in the premise that stuck with me,” she said.
Gupta said the musical reflects her fascination with mental illness in theater, classically portrayed on stage as a stated characteristic or internal struggle of a single character. The musical focuses on “a person as a unit and a family as a unit that could go through a collective emotional journey,” she said.
Unlike the original play, the genre of musical theater allowed Gupta to explore the more “campy, grotesque” facets of the idea without conflicting with the emotional core of the play, she said.
“Working on a new musical is three times as much work as working on a new play,” Klein said. Her job was less to impose her own vision and more to make sure that the production reflected Gupta’s concept, she said.
The most elusive character is Sam, intriguingly portrayed by three actors at the same time. He helps narrate the musical, but does not interact with the other characters, leaving them alone to deal with their conflicting ideas of him.
The three actors represent different facets of Sam’s personality from before he died. “We just all are Sam and try to make sense of what the family is doing, coming from our own version of Sam,” Shusterman said of the triplicate portrayal.
The set, a packrat garage overhauled into a medical workroom with a juxtaposition of cereal boxes and operating tables, reinforces to the audience that behind the automated team of surgeons the Whitmans have become lingers a normal, grieving family. Green lighting used to portray the forest around the house is especially effective in expanding the world of the play’s action.
The score moves the plot forward while still magnifying the emotions of the characters, but some of the characters’ angst feels misplaced. Their intense emotional tensions are never matched by twists or conflicts in the plot itself.
A strong focus on thematic elements leaves some aspects of the story underdeveloped. Uncle Bill (Brady Waibel ’12), whose unrequited love for his sister-in-law Grace is clear to the whole family, shines when singing about being a “shy guy,” but his character remains largely unexplored.
The campier scenes, such as when Jenny sings to her mother about teenage girls that “eat like birds” and “f— like birds,” give excellent depth to the relationships but did not fit smoothly into the story. Upping the grotesqueness and campiness would better balance the heavy angst of the musical.
Musicals can take years to perfect, but even with a relatively short development process, Gupta’s debut exudes the essence of modern musical theatre. “We Can Rebuild Him” captures hearts, hands and whatever else can be found in a body bag and is a must-see in Brown theater this year.
“This is only the first step in the life of the piece,” said Klein, and audiences can only hope she’s right.