Shades of 2016 in Michael John LaChiusa's 2005 musical

'See What I Wanna See' at 11th Hour Theatre Company (first review)

3 minute read
Billy Bustamante and Jake Blouch meet on a New York City park bench in 'See What I Wanna See.' (Photo courtesy of 11th Hour Theatre Company)
Billy Bustamante and Jake Blouch meet on a New York City park bench in 'See What I Wanna See.' (Photo courtesy of 11th Hour Theatre Company)

Though Michael John LaChiusa’s musical See What I Wanna See premiered in 2005 at New York’s Public Theater, it’s a prescient piece. There are shades of the 2016 presidential campaign in its subject matter: the sharp difference of opposing perspectives, and accusations of lying. One character says, “Folks are desperate. The more far-fetched the lies, the more some people will believe them.”

See What I Wanna See is a musical inspired by the Kurosawa film Rashomon, about the subjective nature of truth, which, in turn, was based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The opening recreates a scene from the Japanese movie. “Tonight I kiss my lover for the last time,” a woman sings as she prepares to kill her paramour with a dagger.

We next find ourselves outside the Manhattan theater where the movie held its 1951 premiere, and learn that shortly after the audience left, a man was found dead in the nearby park.

We hear antithetical accounts of ambush, rape and murder from contradictory viewpoints, including the movie’s janitor who found the corpse, a thief, a wife, and a husband. We even encounter a medium who channels the voice of the deceased. It’s fascinating to watch how the same characters become completely different people depending on who’s telling the story.

All of this underscores the play’s point that people want to hear what they want to hear, and they choose to see what they want to see. (Just as political conservatives tune to Fox News while liberals watch MSNBC.)

LaChiusa, a composer, lyricist, and librettist, also wrote Marie Christine, The Wild Party and Giant. His eclectic score uses music with Japanese tones (with prominent writing for flute and percussion), Latin, rock ‘n’ roll and blues, played excitingly by a six-piece band led by Dan Kazemi.

Despite their intricacy, the tunes are catchy. LaChiusa is in a class with Stephen Sondheim, but has not yet received similar fame.

Act II presents a story that has no connection with what came before, but shares the theme that people will believe what they want to believe.

A priest has lost his faith in God in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy. He comes to share his aunt’s conviction that God, Christ and all other deities are frauds, and he intentionally fakes the coming of a miracle in order to taunt what he calls “gullible dopes.” Throngs of people believe his announcement and flock to see the event. When the moment arrives, many believe they’ve witnessed a revelation, while the priest sees nothing.

The atheist aunt’s song, "The Greatest Practical Joke of All," is hilarious, yet I preferred the hard-edged and passionate music that surrounds the mysterious crime in Act I.

Five performers sing and act multiple roles. Baritone Jake Blouch is spectacular as lover, husband and a Central Park derelict. Michael Philip O’Brien is convincing as the mobster and a TV reporter. Nancie Sanderson sings powerfully as the medium and aunt. Cara Noel Antosca makes a vivid impression as a temptress and a drugged-out actress, while Billy Bustamente appealingly portrays the janitor and the priest.

Megan Nicole O’Brien and Steve Pacek share credit for the concept, which is radically different from the New York production. They chose to use a long and narrow playing area between facing banks of seats, thus creating vast areas of space between the performers at one end versus the other. This accentuates the theme of polarized points of view.

The original New York cast, with a fuller orchestration, can be heard on a CD by Ghostlight Records.

For Mark Cofta's review, click here.

What, When, Where

See What I Wanna See by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Megan Nicole O'Brien. Through May 15 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., Philadelphia. (267) 987-9865 or

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