Kansas City Choir Boy
CAMBRIDGE — It’s not a backhanded compliment to say that “Kansas City Choir Boy” has its moments.
Living in that inter-genre wiggle room where dwell “theater pieces, ” the sung-through show, about a couple’s tumultuous romance recalled through flashbacks, knowingly moves on plot points broad enough to spot from across the street. So this often-satisfying piece by composer Todd Almond finds traction not in its slim narrative or flat characters, but song by song.
Performed with the audience seated on three sides, director Kevin Newbury’s busy staging lives up to an increasingly popular theatrical buzzword — it’s truly an immersive experience. The central pairing of Almond and rocker-fashionista Courtney Love is complemented by a six-woman chorus of goth-ish “sirens” (leather and black lace predominate in Paul Carey’s costume design) who perform from all over Oberon, American Repertory Theater’s club-theater space. A string quartet is sometimes seated among the audience and sometimes joins the parade around and into the central playing area; cellist Eric Allen makes the most of some featured moments in the middle of the action.
Frenetic LED lights often dance around the upstage wall and a panel that extends above the audience’s heads. And D. M. Wood’s lighting design takes cues from the electronic beats that frequently fill the room, approximating the vibe of a dance club.
The best achievements here are in the score. The string section (which Almond augments at times on keyboard or acoustic guitar) creates a wistful setting for some of the back-and-forth between leads. These acoustic moments alternate with songs built around tasteful dance beats. But things get truly exciting when Almond fuses elements.
We already knew he has a deft hand at translating stately chamber pop into a musical-theater context — see “Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical, ” the charming revamp of Sarah Ruhl’s play that premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in June. In the most vibrant moments of “Kansas City Choir Boy, ” Almond proposes a sort of chamber-electronica, not so much a fashionable update of Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream classical-jazz fusion as a lyrical and pulsing genre of its own.