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'End' Celebrates Resilience of Human Spirit


New musicals too often translate to unpleasant noise and silly meanderings. And when the director gushes about his new discovery, an 18-year-old from San Antonio, and adds these words about the plot--"rare disease" (aplastic anemia) and "dying"--a neon sign saying "weep-fest" begins to flash.

Yet from the first vibrant measure of "Alive," the song that opens "Sky's End," Blank Theatre Company's latest offering at the 2nd Stage Theatre, those fears fade. This is no tear-jerker. And musical fans may rejoice. Although Joseph Alan Drymala, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, tends to favor overwrought emotions and almost melodramatic plotting, he is unmistakably a promising new talent in the musical theater world.

Andrew (Steve Scott Springer) is hospitalized with Henry (Edward Evanko), an older gentleman who pretends he is a World War II soldier. Andrew's father (Christopher Carroll) can't really deal with his son's illness and, during one of his rare visits, prefers to talk about the weather. Andrew's mother, unseen but alluded to, cannot bring herself to visit her dying boy. Jamie (Christian Meoli), Andrew's younger brother, connects Andrew with the outside world and its normal aspirations of college and love.

Yet it is the sky and its ever-changing canvas that transports Andrew out of his confinement and into a more hopeful place. There is also love: Andrew is smitten with his affianced nurse, Amy (Amy Lloyd). And there are complications even after the fiance, Joey (Danny Fehsenfeld), is summarily disposed of.

Springer attacks this role with zest, evolving from a hopeful, buoyant youth of 23 who wins the audience's hearts to an embittered, angry young man lashing out at those he loves. Lloyd has a more difficult time, attempting to be a puppet manipulated by her superficial fiance as well as a capable nurse worthy of Andrew's love. But this is not entirely her fault.

Not all of this is convincingly scripted by Drymala. The tension of the Amy, Andrew and Joey triangle is not sustained, and the second triangle, involving Amy, Andrew and Jamie, is also underdeveloped.

Drymala's songs also tend to celebrate vocal virtuosity more than move the story forward. They cannot stand alone as a textured, satisfying, cohesive whole.

Director Daniel Henning does a good job bridging these gaps and keeping an upbeat tempo throughout the show. Wisely toning down the melodramatic tendencies, Henning draws out nuanced performances that flesh out some of the weaker parts.

Henning and Jonathan T. Hagans designed a playful set that hints at this tale's ultimately upbeat message about the resilience of the human spirit. Cheerfully painted in primary colors, the set is detailed in child-like naive realism. The unevenly applied tempera, meandering borders and simplified forms have an effect that is more fanciful than sterile.

For all its faults, "Sky's End" is still well worth seeing and will doubtlessly improve in its future incarnations. It's an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but doubly so for this young Texan who has many years ahead to develop his craft.

* "Sky's End," Blank Theatre Company at 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 6. $22. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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