Joking Envelope's Sexy Librarian: File Under Rock Musical has plenty going for it. It's the latest effort from celebrated local playwright Joseph Scrimshaw and has all the hallmarks of one of his scripts: humor that's biting, raw, and incisive; characters with plenty of depth; and an ending that's neither happy nor sad, just real.
The performers, led by Anna Sundberg as the librarian of the title, are a strong set of actors with some vocal chops as well. And the songs, written by Scrimshaw with music by Mike Hallenbeck, have their moments.
Still, I could feel myself cringing whenever the band fired up, often interrupting the funny, dramatic action onstage. Perhaps it's only right that a musical that takes its cues from the Jekyll and Hyde story would be more than a bit bipolar.
File Under Rock Musical
Joking Envelope at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage
Through May 21; 612.280.9210
Sundberg plays Constance Black, a meek-looking but caustic librarian in the small town of Densewood. There, she deals with the everyday problems faced by any modern librarian—needy "customers" who are looking for the hot and steamy version of Pride and Prejudice; computer users perplexed by the internet—all the while fighting to stay relevant in a world that sees the library as a cheap day care center or just a drag on the city budget.
Then she has a chance encounter with a local actor (Mike Rylander) who is pretty and a bit dim. Constance feels the tug of attraction, but he's mostly oblivious to her advances. She, on the other hand, can't see that the head librarian (Sam Landman) is head over cardigan in love with her. Frustrated by her lot in life, Black does what any self-respecting master's-degree-holding professional would do: She reads a spell written by one of the town's fathers that transforms her into what she wants to see—a lively, high-heels-wearing liberated woman with a passionate sex drive. Dumb-but-pretty actor is on the receiving end of this, but even he tires of it: Can't they just talk?
Scrimshaw twists the town's self-destructive ways into all of this, as the library becomes the target of a city council that doesn't see its need and wants to replace it with a PVC-based sculpture garden representing the trees that once surrounded Densewood (all long since cut down, of course).
So the script is full of humor and insight, and the actors are game for whatever gets tossed their way. What holds the show back? The story and the music have an uneasy relationship. While some of the songs are a lot of fun and even shrewd, they never feel completely essential to the story. The band may take some of the blame for that. While reducing the accompaniment to a power trio makes for good, basic rock 'n' roll, the sound seemed a bit thin at the Theatre Garage, missing the weight that a second guitar or keyboards (I'm thinking Deep Purple, Jon-Lord-like here) would give the songs.
It also sounded as if the cast needed more rehearsal with the band, as their vocals seemed slightly out of synch with the music, drawing away some of the oomph of the songs. It didn't help that the three singers—especially Rylander—had occasional trouble hitting the right notes.
The music can work. Landman's hot and heavy "I Wanna Metaphor You" and "The Bookmobile" (sung by band guitarist Adam Whisner) ratchet up the musical's energy with some nice, primitive rock 'n' roll. Sundberg's lovely solo pieces, starting with "What the Hell Is Wrong With Me?" help to not just set the stage but give us a sense of the conflicts at the heart of our lonely librarian.
That heart—who we want to be and who we are to the rest of the world—fuels the Jekyll-and-Hyde-style story. Scrimshaw takes that basic idea and, with typical aplomb and insight, follows it through to a natural spot where the characters have grown but are still not whole. There is a lot of pain and sadness throughout, even with the new, improved Constance Black. It will take the rest of her life to find out who she really is, with or without a rock band to back her up.