Danny — a spunky young Puerto Rican musician with a knack for creating earworms — uploads his diss track poking fun at pop phenom Ryan Reed. Stumbling across the piece, the blocked Ms. Reed isn’t so hurt that she can’t seize the opportunity to steal Danny’s best song and recorded it for her new album. Their heated decisions set in motion Original Sound, an engaging and emotional play with music by Adam Seidel. The events were inspired by his previous job as a Chicago-based hip-hop journalist. In order to keep his work to a tight 95 minutes, Seidel can’t completely avoid the inclusion of music industry tropes. Anyone who keeps up with that world will see echoes of recent headlines, from the cathartic 22-years-in-the-making Verve settlement to the unexpected collaboration of Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus to gain acceptance in a different genre. Yet Seidel also skillfully mines even more interesting territory covering the potentially destructive role of power in the creative process. What happens when your so-called self-expression is no longer your own?
The strong back beat of the plot is built atop the complex relationship that develops between Danny and Ryan. Neither is completely in the wrong, which sets up a fascinating dynamic. The supporting characters each heighten important story elements. Danny’s sister Felicia attempts to be supportive. He more easily receives encouragement from his friend Kari, a business school dropout who strives to keep him safe in an exploitative industry. Ryan is backed by her well-intentioned manager Jake and a team of unseen studio producers and executives. A sign of the script’s sophistication is that it is possible to experience both hope and sadness at the end of their shared journey.
Sebastian Chacon brings genuine warmth and exuberance to Danny. (It is fitting to witness the young actor leave the theater with headphones on and a skateboard tucked under his arm.) He is beautifully balanced by singer-songwriter and actress Jane Bruce’s Ryan, by turns stubborn, guarded, and freed by music. Anthony Arkin plays Jake with credible matter-of-factness. Countering is Lio Mehiel’s sensitive interpretation of Kari, though it seems a missed opportunity not to present the character as non-binary. The production’s shortcoming is not providing Cynthia Bastidas and Wilson Jermaine Heredia enough to work with in their critical turns as Danny’s sister and father.
Director Elena Araoz generally keeps the energy high, all the better to shock the audience with quieter moments. The spirited scene is set by Justin Townsend, who cleverly echoes the look of LPs further enhanced by lighting designer Kate McGee’s dance floor elements. An array of imaginative t-shirts and power booties are provided by Sarita Fellows. But it is the music that appropriately takes center stage in the production’s design. Both Chacon and Bruce perform the songs live. The catchy hits are written by Daniel Ocanto, Ms. Bruce and Mr. Seidel. An improvised solo was originally created by musical artist Armen Dolelian from diverse influences. Additional sound design is provided by Nathan Leigh.
Like a tune recorded by multiple artists, each player in Original Sound goes through variations of their own central theme. It makes for a stirring experience for lovers of emerging works. Original Sound plays through June 8th in The Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. Set 3/4 round in this small house, there are no bad seats. Tickets are $55-$85 and are available by visiting CherryLaneTheatre.org, by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting the Cherry Lane Theatre Box Office.