New plays and musicals that are in their development stage have always reminded me of infant birds that must remain safely in the nest, attended by solicitous parents, until they grow the feathers that enable them to fly and forage for themselves. If the launch is premature, disaster (or something close to it) is the likely outcome. Even if the not-quite-fledged chick survives the fall, its future is threatened by the dangers that lurk below.
The accuracy of this analogy was re-confirmed last weekend as I watched Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) production of Just My Type: The Musical. The show, which is part of the 2018 Ross Alternative Works (RAW) festival, runs through April 29 at the group’s Barn Theatre.
In recent years, new play development has become an increasingly important focus for America’s theaters. It’s a trend that benefits emerging playwrights, while others involved in the creative process also enjoy an expanded opportunity to work on fresh material. The downside is diminished attention to the classical repertoire, both American and international, and a proliferation of plays that blaze across the sky for a short period and then disappear.
Since development, if done right, is a costly process, it’s only natural that the larger professional companies should be the trendsetters. Lately, however, small niche groups with dedicated followers have jumped on the bandwagon, as have community theaters, like RVP. In 2004, RAW’s founding producer Tinka Ross began to upgrade the program, and in 2015-2016 for the first time a RAW project was included in the regular season.
Despite its title, Just My Type isn’t really a musical. It’s a two-character musical revue consisting of more than 18 songs and a finale by composer/lyricist Rita Abrams grouped around a central theme—in this case, how clashing personality types affect intimate relationships. Kate (Charlotte Jacobs, described by the program as “a well-known couples therapist”) and Ben (Michael Sally, “a distinguished psychologist”) are having marital troubles stemming from their dissimilar outlooks on life. To explore the problem, they resolve to write a book together based on their observations of four pairs of clients, using tests derived from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which drew heavily on Carl Jung’s theory that human behavior generally reflects the influence of sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking. Jacobs and Sally portray all of the characters in vignettes punctuated by one or more of Abrams’ songs and accompanied by a five-piece, on-stage band led by Jack Prendergast.
With its many moving parts, this is more than RVP’s resources can handle, especially since limited rehearsal time, casting issues and other concerns required that everyone involved take on multiple roles. (Michael Sally is co-author, co-director and performer; Charlotte Jacobs is co-author and performer; Rita Abrams is composer/lyricist, music director and member of the band, etc.) The result is a tangle of elements—some good, some cringe-worthy—that is just as difficult to judge as the relationships that are depicted on stage.
To further complicate matters, the story’s throughline—a throwback to the late days of the past century, when men were typed as being from Mars and women from Venus in a popular book—feels archaic today. Still, Just My Type’s overall message, encapsulated in Abrams’ haunting song, “Keep Your Heart Open,” remains as relevant as ever.
Although I usually don’t hand out advice, I will break the rule one time. If RAW productions are essentially workshops, treat them as such. Make it simple. Inexpensive for the theater and for the audience. Above all, don’t throw the fledgling out of the nest until it’s ready to fly.
NOW PLAYING: Just My Type: The Musical runs through April 29 in Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.