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Unraveled on the Gravel: A New Musical

BPF musical a confusing detour despite good tunes and strong turns by its college-aged cast

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Josh Kemper (right) calms Sarah Jachelski.

Unraveled on the Gravel: a new musical

Written by Kevin Kostic, directed by Michael Tan

At the Spotlighters Theatre through Aug. 21

“Who the hell am I?” This lyrical refrain from veteran playwright Kevin Kostic’s Unraveled on the Gravel: A New Musical may well represent a key problem with the musical drama, which examines three pivotal points in the life of “compulsive hitchhiker” Ray (Josh Kemper). Unraveled is the first musical ever produced by the 30-year-old Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and while the edgy acoustic rock tunes are spot-on (Kostic could probably profit by releasing a soundtrack), the rest of the show comes off as a bit disorganized.

The action spans 10 years and progresses backward, which isn’t too confusing if you consult the program’s helpful scene list. Ray is introduced as a 28-year-old about to get married to longtime girlfriend Amber (Sarah Jachelski). A fairy-tale wedding is not meant to be—after going missing the night before the ceremony, Ray returns as a shell-shocked wreck, only able to stand and stare as panicked best friends Marlon (Nick Huber) and Wayne (Mike Milillo) fabricate his alibi. Ray snaps out of it when the bride storms in (she doesn’t buy any of the “crazy night in Atlantic City” bullshit), and they have a hackneyed argument that ends in a song. Kemper has a fine voice, but Jachelski’s falsetto tends to miss the pitch.

Its seems like a fairly straightforward start to a story about a guy with cold feet, except for a mysterious character named Wricks (Chris Jones, by far the best singer of the bunch) whom only Ray can see or hear. Wricks is initially nameless, and his denigrating remarks from an armchair in the corner of the stage would have the audience believe that he is simply a personification of Ray’s tortured conscience—a device we’ve all seen before. In a way, this is Wricks’ role, but when we discover his whole identity—well, it’s one of Unraveled’s best moments. Unfortunately, it comes too late. No matter how dark and intrusive Wricks tries to be with his sarcastic remarks, he quickly fades into the realm of comic relief.

The real mystery is trying to figure out who the hell Ray and Amber are. The jilted bride is particularly hard to grasp. From the start, she’s high maintenance, yelling at the traumatized Ray about how she couldn’t get her hair and nails done because she was freaking out too much at the salon. She exudes this silly personality consistently (way too many pouty faces). Thus, it is puzzling to hear Ray and his friends describe Amber as a good, strong, mature person. When Amber figures out that Ray is going to propose, she schemes to marry him for a “happy, normal” life, but it’s obvious to everyone that poor Ray’s love for Amber is more helplessly passionate than motivated by white picket fences. There’s nothing apparent in Amber that would elicit this kind of love, so it’s hard to understand the couple well enough to be moved by the climax.

In addition, the play features college-aged people and takes place largely in a beach house. Without being able to decipher the emotional element in the featured relationship, the whole thing starts to feel kind of like an episode of The O.C.

This comparison is not to knock the actors. Kemper is a little robotic in the beginning, but he finds his groove. Huber makes a fantastic Marlon—the character is a funny, good-natured college dude who likes to drink, and Huber (a college dude himself) portrays him beautifully. In fact, the supporting characters are much more fully realized than Amber or Ray.

Oh yeah, the “compulsive hitchhiker.” This description of Ray is lifted from Unraveled’s promotional material. The program also includes a full page of historical information about hitchhiking. But the play has very little to do with hitchhiking. Yes, we know it’s a metaphor for Ray’s struggle—he doesn’t know where he’s running to, and the landscape is getting more dangerous by the minute. This is easy enough to figure out from the opening scene, when Ray sticks out a shaky thumb at passing cars and asks that age-old question—“Who the hell am I?”—for the first time. But hitchhiking doesn’t really turn up again, and what you’re strongly led to believe was the premise of the whole play turns out not to be very critical. Hence, more confusion. Kostic’s new work delivers a bit of intrigue and some excellent tunes, but when it comes down to the important things—figuring out how Ray can love someone so annoying, for example—Unraveled on the Gravel seems dangerously close to unraveling itself.

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