In "The Music Man" Professor Hill teaches the school board how to sing by explaining to them that singing is just sustained talking. Unfortunately the creators of Annex Theatre's current production "A Mouse Who Knows Me" need to be explained that the same does not go for songwriting as many of the numbers in their world premiere musical about laboratory mice seemed to simply be sung dialog. This ultimately led to a cute show that droned on.
With book and lyrics by Scotto Moore and Music by Robertson Witmer, the show follows the experiments of Dr. Audrey Whitman (Sara Mountjoy Pepka) who has been genetically altering mice in an attempt to make them smarter. Finally her experiment succeeds as she comes across a mouse who seems to know her and is smarter than the other mice. She develops a bond with this mouse that she lovingly refers to as Romeo (K. Brian Neel). But the ambitious Dr. Robert Cramer (Josh Hartvigson) has more militaristic ideas for these intelligent mice and wants to breed them with the super strong mice of another eager post doc Dr. Lorelei Meadow (Pamela Mijatov). The results are super strong AND smart mice led by the volatile D29-1 (Tadd Morgan) that are bent on escaping and subduing their human captors.
Sounds like a B Grade sci-fi movie right? Well it is but with music. Lots and lots of music. In fact it seems Moore and Witmer felt the need to put every moment of the show to music. That might work in an operetta but then everything should be sung. This just seemed like they were throwing songs at the wall and seeing what stuck like so much undercooked pasta. Plus, the lyrics came across as fairly cliché and trite with simple rhymes (how many times can you end a lyric with "you" and "too"?) that is when they rhymed at all. Some lyrics just trailed off to an end with an almost rhyme (just because both ending words end in an "r" doesn't mean they rhyme). There were a few songs that had the kernel of something interesting and some almost made it to the end of the number holding my attention. But most were fairly forgettable.
OK, so the music and lyrics were not so good but what of the direction and performances? Director Kristina Sutherland and the able cast do what they can with the piece but there's really not much to it. It's cute and somewhat fun but pretty predictable and seemed to have a problem committing to what it wanted to be. If you're going to go for a B-grade sci-fi parody then go for the style of one and over emphasize it, otherwise you just come across as wishy washy.
As I said, the cast does what it can. Pepka has a wonderful voice when she gets to use it and plays the straight man well to the chaos surrounding her. Hartvigson and Mijatov play acceptable bad guys but as I mentioned could have gone further with the style. Neel plays the likable everyman … er … everymouse well and has some really nice moments. And Morgan delivers the highest points of the show with his stylized bad boy mouse and willing gang of thugs. Oddly he and his gang had one of the better songs in the show too. The show could do well from growing from that level of writing and performance.
All told the show has a cute premise but was entirely too long, with too many songs jammed into each moment that didn't always move the story along and mediocre lyrics. When I see new works like this I always wonder, did they workshop this at all before putting it up or am I watching the workshop? Because I would think many of these issues could have been addressed before opening night. Oh and one final note. Annex Theatre, just because you have a zip line running down the aisle of the audience, doesn't mean you have to use it in every show. The gag loses its punch that way.
"A Mouse Who Knows Me" performs at Annex Theatre through November 17th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.annextheatre.org.
Photo credit: Ian Johnston/Annex Theatre