'Wild: A Musical Becoming' Soars When It Sings

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday December 14, 2021

"Wild: A Musical Becoming" is exactly that — a completely wild musical fable that is still in the development process, though it is hard to imagine it ever becoming a full-scale, Broadway-styled production. That is because its urgent message about the environment requires this scaled down, concert version that uses recycled materials — from its bare-boned set to its costumes — to be authentic. Something big and Broadway would seem at odds with its concerns.

What may be the keyword here is "fable" since, despite its serious subject matter, "Wild: A Musical Becoming" offers a fanciful tale, closer to "Once on this Island" than "Waitress," though it does share certain resemblances to that hit musical also developed at the American Repertory Theater and directed by its artistic director Diane Paulus in following the struggles of a single-woman facing domestic issues with a pop-oriented score.

In this case it is single-mom Bea, played by Idina Menzel, who is a farmer somewhere in the Hudson Valley (an imaginary town called Outskirtzia) who is barely holding on. She is about to lose her farm if her current crop doesn't produce. She tries to keep this news from Sophia (YDE), her teenage daughter, who is having a crisis of her own prompted by her woke teacher offering an accurate, if frightening, report of the ongoing damage to the environment by mankind, including the loss of thousands of animal species.

Sophia becomes traumatized by this, then after a contentious student show in which the kids berate their parents for the state of the world in the show-stopping "Panic," "We want you to panic/We want you to act/You stole our future/And we want it back!" they angrily sing at their parents, but more specifically the largely over-35 year old audience in what is something of a Brechtian showstopper. After this, Sophia withdraws and wishes in song that she isn't human anymore.

At this point "Wild" becomes less about the reality of the situation and moves into fantasy without missing a beat. Perhaps it is best not to reveal what happens in the script by V (formerly Eve Ensler ("The Vagina Monologues"), but that this magically real moment happens so suddenly without any clues beforehand is a bit jarring — like is this show really going there? Once it does, it becomes something else entirely: bringing to life the climate crisis through personifying the environmental crisis in a chilling and touching way.

It is a lot to expect from a musical that brims with ideas and issues, from the struggles of the family-owned farms to disagreement over gender issues and parental abuse; but in V's libretto, they don't quite mesh. Plus its magical realism appears to come out of nowhere, which takes a bit of an adjustment. Also its politics are too black-and-white. The show's nominal villain is shown as a rabid, cliched Red Stater with a teenage son echoing his toxic rhetoric. That the show's biggest emotional moment rests with them didn't quite feel authentic. Are we suppose to like the abusing dad at that point? Nor are the numerous narrative threads, including the takeover of the farms by a nefarious corporation (called the Extractacals), fully developed.

But as sketchy as the libretto seems, "Wild" soars when it sings. The pop/folkish worm-hole-filled score is infectious. (For the record, the music is by Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell with contributions by Eren Cannata, lyrics by Justin Tranter, Caroline Pennell and V (formerly Eve Ensler) From the opening number "Mouths to Feed" right through its anthemic title-tune, superbly delivered in a full-throttle way by Menzel, the songs are a joy to hear for the first time, a pleasure not often expressed with a new musical. It was impossible for hours after to get "Becoming," the show's second-show stopper out of my ears.

The story's emotional through-line follows the contentious relationship between Bea and Sophia,.which almost appears to get lost in the cluttered plot, but culminates in the tender duet "Do You Remember," which brings to mind a similar duet in "Wicked," in part because of Menzel's role in each. Menzel's impassioned performance builds to a soaring climax with her powerful reading of the title song. YDE is also quite affecting as the emotionally distraught Sophia. The ensemble, some working from scripts, is first-rate, with striking turns from the full-voiced Paravi Das, Luke Ferrari as Sophia's BFF and Michael Williams, who comes into his own with his touching second act ballad, "If I Could Be an Elephant." Best of all is the inclusion of members of Boston Children's Chorus who appear during the "Everything Goes Theater Day" and join in for the powerful "Panic." It is hard to remember a moment in the theater as immediate and powerful as this one.

As part of its environmental message, "Wild" is performed on the same set as the ART's two previous shows — "Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic" and "Macbeth in Stride," simply a series of ramps and platforms on which sit the show's excellent band. The costumes are made of recycled material, and, currently, the show features some actors holding scripts. None of this, under Paulus's astute direction, distracts from enjoying the show. And talk about a spectacular opening night audience— though obviously partisan for the theater and the musical's theme, they responded with two standing ovations during the production, and a sustained one at its conclusion. If there's a musical more simpatico with woke politics it is this one, but that it makes its message in such a simple and richly rewarding way makes "WIld": A Musical Becoming" something extraordinary to be part of. Indeed it is difficult to parse the show's varied issues in an objective way without mentioning what an overwhelming emotional experience "Wild" is in performance.

"Wild: A Musical Becoming" continues at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. Through Jan 2, 2022. For more information, the ART website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].