THEATER REVIEW: In 11th Hour’s See What I Wanna See, a Musical Searches for Meaning

The energetic, high-wattage ensemble isn't an optimal fit for this dark-tinged show about life on the margins.

Jake Blouch and Billy Bustamente in See What I Wanna See at 11th Hour. (Photo by Daniel Kontz)

Jake Blouch and Billy Bustamente in See What I Wanna See at 11th Hour. (Photo by Daniel Kontz)

Now is the 11th year of 11th hour — and in that decade-plus, we’ve seen a steadily increasing level of mastery and showmanship. When I think about a company signature style, I think of events on a grand scale — large-format musicals that demand (and receive) super-sized, virtuoso performances. It’s no wonder that 11th Hour shows are some of the most popular and anticipated in town — you’re pretty much guaranteed a powerhouse good time.

In both their mainstage and concert productions, the group has tackled serious subjects before — but nothing quite like Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See.

Well, there is nothing quite like this collection of chamber musicals, loosely (very loosely) based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories. Rashomon is riffed on in two of them — a samurai piece, and a Noir-ish murder story that also recalls James M. Cain. The final and most satisfying section goes further afield — set in Central Park just after 9/11, it brings together a motley crew in a collective search for spiritual meaning. LaChiusa’s score (he wrote music, lyrics and libretto) runs the gamut from cool jazz to contemporary power ballads and more.

See What I Wanna See is about as high concept as it gets, as LaChiusa explores perception, truth, faith and other big topics. But the deeper connections are tenuous, and though there are a couple of really good passages in the Central Park piece, much of the music is serviceable rather than memorable.

The show is cleverly staged here, in a visually appealing, beautifully lit production co-conceived by Megan Nicole O’Brien and Steve Pacek. The five members of the ensemble — Cara Noel Antosca, Jake Blouch, Billy Bustamente, Michael Philip O’Brien, Nancie Sanderson — display familiar 11th Hour virtues: exuberance, energy, high-wattage vocalism.

But it’s not an optimal fit for this intimate, dark-tinged piece or its characters, many of whom are damaged and exist on the margins. The Noir sequence in particular would benefit from a quieter approach in both acting and singing. The group does better with the second act (Central Park), which they deliver with spirit and bravado.

Speaking of quieter — on opening night the amplification was in overdrive, and mostly unnecessary. One of the glories of 11th Hour is the clarion power of the voices — why not allow the audience the thrill of hearing them without an artificial boost?

See What I Wanna See runs through May 15. For more information, visit the 11th Hour Theatre Company website.