As far as 17-year-old Harry Daimler knows, his Jewish musician-father, Eddie Daimler, died tragically in Europe during World War II. Harry's Irish American mother, Helen, tells her son that she has scattered her husband's ashes around the Lower East Side neighborhood where he grew up.
Pretty early in the world-premiere musical Big Red Sun, staged by the 11th Hour Theatre Company at the Christ Church Neighborhood House through June 17, the cracks in that story begin to seem like yawning chasms.
And Harry (an edgy Kyle Segarra, radiating angst), the heir to his parents' musical legacy, becomes determined to uncover the secrets of his father's mysterious past, no matter whom he upsets or annoys in the process. Including, one is tempted to add, the audience.
As directed by Megan Nicole O'Brien, Big Red Sun's schematic and awkward book (by John Jiler, who also wrote the serviceable lyrics) is mostly an excuse for composer Georgia Stitt's amiable ramble through 20th-century American musical styles.
Eddie Daimler (the charismatic Michael Philip O'Brien, 11th Hour's producing artistic director) supposedly excelled as a prewar swing composer and arranger. But Stitt's varied score also encompasses Jewish liturgical music, klezmer, jazz, ballads, and stirring rock tunes reminiscent of the work of Tom Kitt, of Next to Normal fame. The best of these is the title number, which concludes the show in a blaze of uplift and redeems Segarra's emotionally monochrome performance.
In fact, Stitt's music is diverting enough, and well-enough sung (and played by a five-piece band), to distract from the two-act show's considerable dramaturgical problems.
In the first act, the story zigzags between the present (in this case, 1960) and various points in the past. It's not always clear whether the flashback scenes are being recounted to Harry, taking place in another character's memory, or simply happening in the past.
One lovely moment is the initial meeting of Helen (a sweet-voiced Marybeth Gorman) and Eddie, culminating in their tender love duet, "Caught My Attention." Another terrific number, "Mister Blue," is performed by Helen and Eddie's African American bandmate, James L. Johnson (Rob Tucker, a powerhouse singing actor who creates the show's most convincing character).
Dramatizing the career of an interracial band in the Jim Crow era might serve as commentary on (still unresolved) fissures in American society. But Jiler doesn't dig deep enough. Nor does he do much to illuminate the tensions suggested, and precipitated, by the radical changes in American musical tastes as the big-band era shuddered to a close.
In the second act, whose surprises I won't spoil, Eddie's tortured (and less than credible) story emerges through both conversations and flashbacks. The characters' extreme reactions don't, in the end, make much sense. But Harry's psychological ordeals do at least spur the glorious musical awakening that concludes the show.
The spare scenic design, with the band as a backdrop, is by Christopher Haig. Mike Inwood's lighting effectively sets off the two act climaxes, and Janus Stefanowicz cleverly layers costumes, removing a coat to reveal glitter, or adding a uniform to change a son into a soldier. There's a latent metaphor here, waiting to explode into drama.