REVIEW: The Bengsons are back in “The Lucky Ones”
The best kept secret in the world of musical theatre right now is that husband and wife indie electro-folk rock duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, known as The Bengsons, are quietly heralding the arrival of a subtly different, still-adolescent but exciting new type of musical: the personal docu-concert.
When forms are shifting and emerging it is not always clear in the moment. At the Public Theater and New York Theatre Workshop last year, they premiered “Hundred Days”, a sweet and beautiful show about their relationship, termed a “theatrical event”. “The Lucky Ones”, their latest effort, opened Saturday night in an excellent Ars Nova production at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village. Call it whatever you want, this world premiere musical is abundantly surprising, deeply intimate, and simply gorgeous.
In “Hundred Days”, Abigail alludes to a familial trauma in her past that led to an eating disorder and shook her ability to trust those around her. “The Lucky Ones” serves as its prologue or prequel, diving deep into the source of that trauma, tracing back to Abigail’s colorful childhood in the “part of Vermont that happens to be in Maine”. The show is advertised as being “semi-autobiographical”, and Shaun cautions early on that it is a true story, “even the parts that never happened” (hence the “semi”).
Director Anne Kauffman once again collaborates with The Bengsons who provide the songs and co-wrote the book with their “Hundred Days” partner Sarah Gancher. This time, though, they are joined onstage by a two piece band and a 16 person cast on a tiered, stationary set by Rachel Hauck. It feels less concert, and more musical, especially given the historic proscenium of the Connelly Theatre and the choir loft at the back of the small auditorium, smartly used by Ms. Kauffman, not to mention heavy employment of stylized movement and dance throughout (kinetic choreography by Sonya Tayeh).
Summoning an endless autumnal sensibility that fits like an oversized sweater, the creative team and cast construct a specific, Hipster-dreamworld in which to tell Abigail’s story. Act one is nostalgically idyllic, as Abigail introduces her family, a lovable group of crunchy characters whose elders rejected their abusive childhoods by founding a school premised on kindness, love, and nonviolence, teaching that “God is the space between us”, and setting few boundaries for their children, nurturing via unmitigated natural exploration (“question everything”). Such freedom, though, has its costs. Abigail’s older cousin, the guitar-clad stoner Kai, falls in love with the earnest new girl, Emma, then has a kind of spiritual awakening later revealed to be a drug-induced psychotic episode. When things go downhill, the delicate balance of their carefully designed world easily crumbles.
Act two deals with the aftermath of a shocking and violent act (no spoilers here), in sharp contrast to the sunny first half. The story is told as Abigail experienced it, free from present day editorializing, which allows the audience to share her journey without prejudice. What is remarkable is how peripheral Abigail remains to most of the action throughout the show. “The Lucky Ones”, like “Hundred Days”, is no vanity project. It is raw, honest, and human. While scripted and certainly fictionalized at times, it feels anything but, due to the intensity of Abigail’s performance and the strength of Ms. Kauffman’s guiding hand.
What might be perceived as a magical upbringing to covet at first glance, is revealed to be a nightmare that damaged Abigail, her sister, and their cousins. We experience with Abigail the moment she realizes it’s possible that “these people” might be bad, or mad, and present day interviews serve as a chilling coda to the story. “The Lucky Ones” is ultimately about how we wrestle with a painful past we cannot change, how faith and forgiveness can both trap and empower us, and how we always have the ability, however difficult, to chart a different future.
Once again employing a pulsating punk rock indie folk musical idiom, the show is expertly calibrated, energetically and passionately performed, and very moving. I must admit, I am smitten by The Bengsons, their style and personality, and am eager to hear and see more of their unique voice and vision. As has been suggested, perhaps “Hundred Days” and “The Lucky Ones”, each tightened and trimmed, could be combined into one evening of theatre. Apparently, it is part of a trilogy (they always come in threes, don’t they?).
Whatever they do next, keep The Bengsons on your radar, and catch “The Lucky Ones” if you can.
Bottom Line: The Bengsons follow up on “Hundred Days” with another musical docu-concert, “The Lucky Ones”, which serves as a sort of prologue or prequel. Abundantly surprising, deeply intimate, and simply gorgeous, they have created another wonderful show that brims with rawness, honesty, and humanity.
“The Lucky Ones”
Ars Nova at
The Connelly Theatre
220 East Fourth Street
New York, NY 10009
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 31, 2018
Final Performance: April 21, 2018 (extended to April 28th)