Theater Review (NYC): North at La Mama

Ready for something different? North is a different kind of show, and that's appropriate, as it's the creation of Heather Christian, a different kind of singer.

Neither a drama nor a musical, North consists of an hour of music on a white-decked stage, with several dance segments, a shadow puppet number, and striking, if unexplained, visual and sonic imagery. Ms. Christian's band of musician-dancers, the Arbornauts, first enter, marionette-like, amid a series of blackouts, and the songspiel begins with Ms. Christian playing Chopin on a grand piano, which leads into a beautiful song by The Decemberists called "The Engine Driver."

Here it becomes apparent that Ms. Christian – in the most general sense, a singer-songwriter – is fundamentally a voice fetishist. Like pop singer Regina Spektor but to a much greater extreme, she makes her voice a self-referential and autoerotic object rather than an instrument through which thoughts and feelings are expressed. The expression here, the drama, is in the musical arrangements and the staging.

Whether the star's alternately breathy, nasal, infantilized, and heavily vibrating vocalizations strike you as interesting or annoying will determine to a great extent how much you enjoy the avant-garde entertainment she has devised. The songs themselves, some her own and some covers, are set with sometimes lovely, sometimes howling, occasionally bewildering arrangements and in some cases, curiously alluring choreography and evocative video. The snowy, angelic, dreamy, outlandish costumes and white-clad set suggest a winter landscape; there is a recurring theme of an airline flight; and the order of the songs feels vaguely meaningful. But otherwise the cantata has no story.

Ms. Christian's own piano-based compositions tend to be sparely written art songs and mood pieces that climax dramatically. The other four musicians play trumpet, clarinet, violin, electric guitar, melodica, and drums, and despite some out-of-tune playing (intentional? I couldn't tell) the impassioned builds are very effective. Set among the singer's own compositions are an assortment of classical and pop covers (Debussy, the Beatles), which carry most of the musical hooks.

For many singer-songwriters, it's dangerous to place your own compositions among recognized masterworks for fear they'll suffer by comparison. But here the atmospheric staging and the strange vocalizing take some of the burden off the songs themselves, and we are left with an impression that we have witnessed a sensational event while half-asleep or drugged. North continues through Feb. 2 at La Mama.

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