BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Rob Hartmann loves to talk about musical theater, and when he tries to put his finger on what makes a musical succeed or fail, he always comes back to one important thing.
"There has to be passion in a musical," Hartmann said one afternoon last week.
Hartmann, 46, who has written more than a dozen musicals, thinks he has a suitably passionate subject for Vanishing Point, which opens this weekend at American Stage. It's about three iconic women who all vanished at a point of crisis in their lives:
• Mystery writer Agatha Christie, who disappeared for 11 days in 1926 after discovering her husband's adultery.
• Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who vanished for three weeks that same year, with only a bizarre tale of kidnapping as explanation.
• Aviator Amelia Earhart, who was lost over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.
Hartmann's musical is a fantasy that has these women finding each other in a theatrical limbo called "the vanishing point," where they help each other heal and contemplate whether or not to return to life.
"It's not like a Twilight Zone episode," said Hartmann, who composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics and book for the show. "It's more of a theatrical high-wire act. Each of these women had a passion, and the musical is about how you balance that passion, that thing you find that you are meant to do in the world, with a sense of perspective on your life."
Vanishing Point has a long, circuitous history. Its origin goes back to 1992, when Hartmann and Scott Keys were in graduate school together in the New York University Musical Theatre Writing Program (where Hartmann now teaches). Keys wrote a short piece on the subject, and five years later they expanded on it for a version that was produced in Chicago. That was followed by rewrites and stagings in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
In 1998, there was a staged reading of the musical at American Stage that I wrote about in a column on new works. "Vanishing Point came across as more mini-opera than musical comedy, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," I said. "Lots of the music was excellent — a gospel chorus about judgment day followed by a trio about wanderlust, a vampy whodunit number about 'red herrings and airtight alibis,' an Elizabethan-style folk song — but the narrative was elusive, to say the least, and that was a problem."
Presumably, it has gotten better. In all, over the past 15 years, the musical has had about 10 productions of various sorts. Hartmann gained a new collaborator, Liv Cummins, who contributed to the book and lyrics. Keys, who teaches theater at Booker Visual and Performing Arts High School in Sarasota, is no longer actively involved, though he remains a highly interested party and got together recently with his old schoolmate and writing partner for breakfast.
At American Stage this time around, the cast features Lauren L. Wood as Christie, Victoria Adams-Zischke as Earhart and Kathleen Brooke Davis as McPherson. Each actor also plays other characters.
"This really is the best cast it's had," Hartmann said. "And with a three-person show, casting is everything."
Even though the musical is about famous historical figures, Hartmann and Cummins didn't assume the audience would know who the women were. "We wrote it with the idea that you could come in knowing nothing," he said. "People do walk in with a lot of preconceptions, especially about Amelia Earhart. It's sometimes better if people know less."
The director is Kara-Lynn Vaeni, also with NYU's musical theater program. Pianist Vince Di Mura performs Hartmann's score and is musical director. The show has about 20 songs.
"I try to give each of the women a different musical feel," Hartmann said. "Agatha has a Gilbert and Sullivan, a '20s Cole Porter feel. Aimee is drawing on Appalachian hymn music and Gershwin jazz. Amelia's songs are really the heart of the show, with a lot of very sweeping, soaring stuff."
Hartmann is hesitant to call Vanishing Point a feminist musical — "I like to say it's humanist," he said — but the Minneapolis Star Tribune review quoted on his website (robhartmann.com) said it is precisely that:
"Vanishing Point stands as a stirring feminist work in the best sense of the word. The pressures facing Christie, McPherson and Earhart all spring directly from their experience and existence as women, and as such the piece speaks almost viscerally to anyone who has dared to defy society's limits."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.