The Girl Who Got Away
Courtney Love plays a shooting star out of devotion’s reach in Todd Almond’s ‘Kansas City Choir Boy’
By Christina Campodonico
Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl disappears to New York City, never to be seen or heard from again. Boy is left heartbroken by the loss.
The plot of “Kansas City Choir Boy,” starring rock icon Courtney Love as the one who got away, may seem like a typical story of love and loss. But if the opera’s composer, lyricist and titular Midwesterner Todd Almond has his way, you may walk away with more questions than answers about the nature of love.
“I don’t like to give away magic,” responds Almond to a question about an ambiguous lyric. “Sometimes revealing the magic trick makes it mundane.”
It’s hard to step out of “Kansas City Choir Boy,” now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, without feeling a little bit of wonderment — was what I saw someone’s mournful memory or some kind of dream?
Yet too much explanation might detract from the magic of this one-hour opera, which charts the lightning-fast and carefree romance of two Missouri teens through a blend of DIY electronic music and acoustic love ballads.
The work — which premiered in January at Prototype, an annual New York festival for small-scale opera and experimental musical theater works — is not your straightforward opera or musical, but a compilation of songs that loosely narrate the couple’s love story.
The musical structure has the feel of a mixtape or a private iTunes playlist created jointly by boyfriend and girlfriend. Only they know the rhyme and reason of the order, but the ode to young love is the prevailing theme. Almond calls the show a “theatricalized concept album.”
“One thing that I enjoyed about ‘Kansas City Choir Boy’ and writing it is that the construction was more of an emotional logic than a chronological logic,” said Almond, who initially composed the song cycle on his Mac’s GarageBand app while staying in a Kansas City hotel room after a bad break up.
Yet personal heartache wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Around the same time, Almond saw the image of a missing local girl aired on the nightly news. It brought to mind the mysterious disappearance and 2004 murder of Sarah Fox, a young Juilliard actress who played the goddess Athena in a musical version of “The Odyssey” that Almond had then just composed. He didn’t know Fox very well, but the news was still a shock. Her killer remains unknown.
“I suddenly identified with Sarah and I wondered, was Sarah like me — a kid from somewhere who wanted to move to the city but didn’t really know what they’re going after?” says Almond of the solemn memory and story’s original muse.
For him, Love’s electric vivacity not only fit the role of the big-dreaming Athena but paid tribute to Fox’s promising career and the character she inspired.
“[Athena] was somebody who, when you look at her, you just know that she has a big destiny in one way or another. And so the requirement beyond being a great singer and actress, which Courtney is, is that the character has like a shimmery quality … You just look at her and go, right, ‘You do not belong in Kansas City. You belong in the big city in the bright lights one way or another, and not in a superficial way, but like you are just fuller of life than we mortals.’”
Love, with her battle-worn voice, sad eyes and a tattoo on her right arm that cries “Let it Bleed,” embodies both the defiant strength of a goddess, yet also the vulnerability of a teenage girl, wrestling with emotions that may be too wild for a young heart to handle. It’s Love’s effusive power that Almond finds most invigorating about working with the star.
“You know certain actors just really give you a lot, and she’s one of them. So it never feels like your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. It just feels like we’re constantly shaking hands and handing each other energy,” Almond says.
That surge of emotion not only propels the play, but also stems from a few other seeds of inspiration. Almond recalls the excitement of seeing a couple making out through a train window around the time of writing “Kansas City Choir Boy.”
“I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know what their names were. I didn’t know if they were married or having an affair. I just thought it was a cool image … so [‘Kansas City Choir Boy’] became about this passionate relationship between a man and a woman,” he said.
Ardor shows itself in various ways throughout the operetta. From lights that pulse like a fluttering heart high on desire to a slow-fingered and seductive wave goodbye, love is an emotion shown rather than told. Yet its meaning is ultimately left for the viewer to decipher.
“As a writer of theater, I feel like part of my job is to present questions,” saysAlmond.
As for the mysteries of love, he is not about to give away too many answers.
“Kansas City Choir Boy” continues through Nov. 8 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $30 to $55. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.com.