The best way to understand a modern phenomenon is often through the lens of something well-worn and familiar, and FaultLine Theater has proven their mastery of this approach through and through with their undeniable new musical, “Tinderella.” If you haven’t already guessed from the portmanteau name, this production takes the storyline bones of the old Cinderella chestnut and fuses them within a shiny new exterior: the machinations of the online dating app, Tinder, and the nascent culture and etiquette that have exploded into the world around it. Often accused of being only skin-deep, the whole scene of the app and its participants is something akin to dark storm clouds swirling and menacing the formation of a funnel, a faint electric charge in the air; the adventurous and bored stay to watch and test their luck, while everybody else heads to the cellar, proclaiming outwardly the unassailable sensibility of their plan but unable to squelch the screaming voice inside that wants to know what will happen, what will become of those people who stayed. Will they die as idiots? Will they live and have a better story than you ever will? As one roommate character in the play says, more or less, “Tell me everything, don’t spare any details. I want to live vicariously…did you cum?”
Directed by Rose Oser, who also wrote the libretto, Tinderella concerns itself repeatedly with the theme of “more or less,” deftly using the backdrop of a literal fairytale to firmly delineate the messy areas in life, the things that are neither happy nor an ending and that are certainly not appropriate for starry-eyed children to hear before bed. The main character is a woman named Meg, played by Marisa Conroy, who is young (and straight! and white! as the play points out, jabbing itself pointedly in the ribs) and living with her worldly (and sassy! and gay!) roommate, Dylan, played by Weston Scott, who also wrote the show’s top-notch lyrics. Soon after the curtains open, and just beyond the flurry of a tone-setting opening scene and a dynamic all-hands musical number, our vocally-gifted heroine discovers that her traditional dating pool has dried up. Dylan will have none of this and quickly orchestrates her debutante entrée into the world of Tinder and the silver-tongued wraiths and bog-like half-relationships that inhabit it. Seeing no better option, Meg wades through a maze of dick pics and lazy copy-pasted opening lines, the sacrosanct birthright of today’s modern single woman, eventually stumbling fortuitously into a promising suitor: Marcus, a trim techie whose designer jeans and casual shoes are filled effortlessly on stage by Kevin Singer.
But nothing is neat in the Tinder Kingdom, and Marcus has a secret. Or, if not exactly a secret, at least a reality that coincidentally wouldn’t quite merit a mention in anybody’s 500-character-limit online profile. For reasons that are complicated and yet profoundly simple, that secret’s name is “Julie,” a young bohemian whose mouth and heart speak in confusingly different directions, but whose singing voice is more surefooted, being provided by the talented Audrey Baker. And in a predictable yet wholly accurate parallel twist, Meg also has an unwanted secret named “Neal,” a clingy young Republican played on pitch down to the last Oxford eyelet by Alex Bonte, with whom the “sex stuff” was great, if reportedly full of male tears, but with whom she doesn’t want to co-own a picket fence. Will Marcus end up with Julie, or will he jump ship to Meg? Will he change course entirely and take up with Dylan? Will Neal finally convince Meg to do it to an Ayn Rand audiobook? Will anybody cum, and will they all make it back before the BART turns into a pumpkin at midnight? These are all quintessential questions in the life of bay area millennials, and I promise that Tinderella will answer them all, and it will do it in song.
This was actually the second time I’ve seen Tinderella, as FaultLine workshopped it last August before its current official staging. I didn’t write about it back then, for no particular reason, but now I’m glad that I didn’t, because the show has grown up immensely in the last half year. There are innumerable small changes: the spitfire cultural references are zingier and more plentiful (“Come on, you use Lyft, where you literally give a serial killer your exact address”), and the interstitial one-liners are far more polished. But leagues beyond this, the most profound shift is that the cast has found the stuff of real chemistry, settling down into their roles as believable extensions of their actual selves, rather than just as characters. I didn’t notice this until I felt an unexpected frisson after the minor-key showstopper tango, “Don’t Make This About Love,” a paramour vocal duel between Baker and Singer with a self-consciously public dance to match. The actual number was excellent, easily matching the Tango Maureens of the world, but I didn’t get my goosebumps until a few seconds after the lights flashed off on the final embrace. The music had stopped and the applause had peaked and faded, but the actors hadn’t moved within the darkness. Julie and Marcus were still holding each other for a second, a second longer than they had to, one stolen second more for them and less for the brewing set change. I have no idea what is or isn’t going on between those characters or the actors who play them, but for one extra second, I fully believed that it might be something. True caring and romantic interest is a lot like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s the lingering moment where a hand doesn’t move from a shoulder that it has no defensible reason to rest on, where somebody’s eyes keep finding a part of the room where they have no business looking, where two people clasp in the dark when they should be grabbing flotsam off the stage and checking cues. That is worth the price of admission, and I didn’t see it last August, but I caught it this time.
The show now delivers this type of palpable verisimilitude regularly, each young person in their own way. Meg is more existentially forlorn but strongly independent than before, while Neal is more overtly scared and clutching, painting his desperate dream of lasting love and a nuclear family vividly within the limited lines that he has. Weston Scott has also upgraded his original Dylan, an immaculately-rendered but flat gay stereotype, now refined into a complete master of comedic timing that far overshadows the still-present tropes of sexuality and city-slicker living. A silent one-man scene by Scott, involving mixology and a vodka-soaked snuggie, kept our audience rapt and laughing just as long as it would have in the black-and-white era before talkies. Harpo Marx would be proud.
Beyond tightening just the script and the acting, Oser and company have also elevated the music this time around. In the prior workshop version, the songs were promising, but their execution was spotty, and they too often fell victim to the curse of the musical, in which the singing parts feel bolted-on and forced. Not so anymore: the cast has sung its numbers enough times now that breaking into song seems as natural as anything else they might do on stage. This translated immediately into a more confident mastery of pitch and a total dissipation of the awkwardness that previously gummed up the works during transitions.
Musicals, in general, have a hard task. Like all art, they must deliver thought and emotion without drawing their audience’s attention to aspects of the medium that aren’t intended to contribute to the message. The author of a book can pick a simple binding and a subdued cover, if they want, leaving the words to speak by themselves. A painter can choose a minimalist frame or no frame at all, presenting you only the painting to look at. The creator of a musical, however, is far more limited, saddled with one of the most inherently gaudy and jarring artistic constructs in existence. It’s hard to get your message across transparently when the audience’s thoughts are repeatedly drawn to the meta level, focused on the unrealness of actors speaking and then suddenly singing and then dancing and then speaking again. In the case of Tinderella, though, this format actually contributes consonant meaning to the rest of the production, so it doesn’t need to try to hide itself. The persistent human absurdity of trying to find, or perhaps create, something as theoretically faithful and pure as love, amidst a tumult of ongoing general carnality, is etched in right down to the marrow of the show. It makes sense that the characters are now singing, now dancing, now screaming, now laughing, because those are all the odd directions they are really being pulled in. There is a reassuring harmony between message and vehicle, and that is a rare accomplishment.
This type of musical success, of course, depends at its core on the music itself. In that vein, I have been waiting patiently to extend my loudest and most grateful “thank you” to Christian B. Schmidt, who wrote the fantastic score for Tinderella. As opposed to many self-indulgent modern composers, Schmidt used actual chords and melodies to create pieces that are identifiable as songs. And not just songs but good songs, great songs, songs whose hooks I can still sing to you, days later. Songs that stand out on their own merits but that also easily fall back into the broader tapestry of the play at large, letting the cast work fluidly within them to advance plot points and character development, rather than acting as forces of nature that periodically subjugate the poor actors into meaningless limbo, like so many tortured souls for three minutes at a time that I’ve seen in less well-wrought musicals. Clever use of genre often sets the mood with bullseye accuracy before the singers even open their mouths, and the music as a whole adds the yeast-like, secret-ingredient rise to the overall production that makes good musicals so special and is, in fact, the only thing that makes them worth attempting at all.
I have few nits to pick with Tinderella, and those I do have are small. Most notably, the same refinement that has added punchy jokes to the script over time has maybe now folded in a few too many. There are almost so many cultural references that they begin to step on each other’s toes; does one musical really have room for two jokes about the dystopian tech-food Soylent? This type of ceaseless quick wit starts to toe the line of cloying, but I don’t think it crosses it. And you can pry that Lyft joke from my cold, dead hands if you want to take it out; that thing was money. There are also a few stellar puns that you’ll have to pry from my cold, dad hands if you want them back.
Another thing that I’m not so sure about is the physical space of the play. Tinderella workshopped in the large black box theater at PianoFight, and I thought the wider stage there fit the musical format really well and gave the actors space for big, dynamic movements. For this run, they are using the venue’s smaller black box theater, and things are a bit more cramped. Noah Kramer (scenic design), Maxx Kurzunski (lighting design), Ramzi Jneid (costume design), and Evan Wardell (sound design) have done a commendable job coherently transforming the tight footprint that reality gave them into a believable set of sprawling larger spaces in the audience’s mind, but there are limits to this ability, even for a talented team. The show’s rock-solid and gifted keyboardist and musical director, Matt Grundy, also acts to expand the available space in some scenes, as his typically-dark booth, behind and above the stage, lights up for him to pull double-duty as a DJ character. The positive flip-side to the compact space is that every seat is automatically within spitting distance of the action on stage, so every ticket guarantees an intimate show. And while the sets and props are necessarily limited, those which are present are well curated and used to good effect in the story. With bay area housing prices being so nuts anyway, maybe it sort of darkly makes sense that even the Tinderella characters have had to move to smaller places.
In all, this current version of Tinderella is unmistakably excellent, the manifest product of months of careful theatrical discipline and obvious hours of painstaking editorial work. De novo musicals are somewhat of a rare thing in general, and to see one successfully created and then executed by a hometown team is, conservatively, amazing. The audience that I was in clearly loved it, and they had every reason to. If you’re at all on the fence about seeing this show, and you’re not opposed to objectively good things, like love or jam, then you also have every reason to swipe right on it. And there it was. You thought that you were finally going to get to the end of a piece involving Tinder without having to read that hackneyed and trite joke, but you didn’t, because I just used it. I finally used it. I got you fair and square. Now go see Tinderella.
Tinderella is playing at PianoFight in the Tenderloin through the end of February (get tickets):
- Thursday, 2/4 @ 7:30 (sold out)
- Friday, 2/5 @ 7:30 (sold out)
- Saturday, 2/6 @ 4:30 (sold out)
- Saturday, 2/6 @ 7:30 (sold out)
- Thursday, 2/11 @ 7:30
- Friday, 2/12 @ 7:30
- Saturday, 2/13 @ 4:30 (sold out)
- Saturday, 2/13 @ 7:30
- Thursday, 2/18 @ 7:30
- Friday, 2/19 @ 7:30
- Thursday, 2/25 @ 7:30
- Friday, 2/26 @ 7:30
- Saturday, 2/27 @ 4:30
- Saturday, 2/27 @ 7:30