The New York Musical Theater Festival is in its final week and one of shows rounding it off is the promising Texan import As We Lie Still, by Patrick Emile (music and lyrics) and Olivia de Guzman Emile (book). As We Lie Still follows a turn-of-the-century magician Avi Leiter in his pursuit for fame at all costs. Using the stage-name The Great Marduk, Avi (Travis Stuebing) hopes to squash his competitors on the vaudeville with a death-defying stunt. Literally. He’s going to kill and revive someone on stage. Think The Prestige without David Bowie. Avi finds an willing test subject in his assistant Josephine (the charmingly talented Olivia de Guzman Emile). Not only does Avi succeed in reviving Josephine, he does it again and again for his act. What he doesn’t know, or doesn’t bother to find out, is that when Josephine’s soul is in limbo, she develops a bond with the Angel of Death (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.) and loses faith in Avi’s success.
All this is told in retrospect by an aged and obscure Avi (Michael A. Robinson), whose career abruptly ends in scandal once his relationship with Josephine fails. It’s a fanciful and entertaining, if not altogether original premise, and provides the possibility of thoughtful reflections on death, love, and ambition. Unfortunately, the narrative jumps around way too much to savor any complexity in the characters or approach their situations with much nuance. I was left wondering about many of the story’s key plot points, some of which felt forced and unbelievable. Why does Josephine so readily offer to risk her life for Avi, and why does she become so disillusioned with him and his act? The relationships between the characters feel too thinly-stretched to substantiate their motivations and the show’s clunky magical elements are not enough to hook the audience in a meaningful way. However, As We Lie Still has some great potential and the capacity for much heart. I can see a future version of the musical with tighter songs and a more developed narrative being extremely effective at presenting a unique and heartfelt story while sending goosebumps down your arms.
As We Lie Still plays at the Pearl Arts Center through July 27th as part of NYMF.