Klook (Amari Cheatom) spent most of his youth in the penitentiary, but age and wisdom have set him on the straight and narrow with a job at a local health club and his own apartment. One day, a beautiful young woman, Vinette (Brittany Inge), walks into the health club, and he flirtatiously offers her a cup of carrot juice. Vinette is a single mother on the run from herself and her secrets and looking for a cure to writer’s block.
Totally unimpressed with Klook, she plays hard to get at first, but syllable after syllable, they peel the layers back on each other and eventually move in together in Che Walker’s “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette.”She’s convinced he’ll be the death of her, but in this abstract love story, she may end up being his undoing.
The musical play, onstage at Horizon Theatre through Feb. 18, premiered last year at the Park Theatre in Walker’s native London under the title “Klook’s Last Stand,” with music by British soul singers Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lye-Fook. This is the American premiere of the show, which traveled to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in New York, where Lisa Adler, Horizon’s producing co-artistic director, saw a snippet.
Walker journeyed across the pond to direct at Horizon. He has certainly crafted a script full of beautiful poetic language that is both romantic, “we were long-lost twins climbing back into a womb of our own design,” and heartbreaking, “the world has become a kaleidoscope of spiritual upper cuts.” The scenes are a series of vignettes that offer a glimpse into what turns out to be a rocky romance.
Cheatom as Klook struggles to bring his performance outside of himself and draw the audience into him. There are moments when he comes close, especially in the scene where Vinette finds a gun in his dresser and he begs her not to leave, but these moments pop and fizzle so quickly. In the musical moments, Cheatom’s voice does not fill the space, compared to Inge, who has a beautiful singing voice. She was last on the Horizon stage in “Blackberry Daze” as another woman who found trouble in the form of a man. Inge captures Vinette’s sense of humor and sensuality beautifully, but this is not enough to overcome the lack of chemistry between the two performers.
Walker’s directorial choices at times feel out of sync with the script. There are many times when the performers are positioned at stools that are on opposite sides of the stage, which creates literal distance between two people who are supposed to be completely intertwined. There are also moments when the band members react to what is happening onstage and the actors acknowledge them, but these moments lighten the emotional weight of the show. Sometimes a drama just needs to be a drama, and the humor that is already a part of the script is enough.
The bare set, designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, consists of two stools in front of a piano, two jagged half walls for projections, a ceiling fan and an oversized, arched venetian blind at center stage. The projections look like rainbows of ink spilling out onto a page and are enhanced by Mary Parker’s stunning lighting design. Parker is a mainstay at Horizon, and the warm washes of light over the set make it look like a never-ending sunset. Guitarist and bassist Maurice Figgins and pianist/musical director Christian Magby do a wonderful job delivering the show’s jazzy score, which is both sensual and somber.
The core question of “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” is can love conquer the past? Walker has written the script in such a way that the answer to that question is left up to the audience. Klook and Vinette are two lost souls who try to find themselves in each other, but in Horizon Theatre’s production, this May-December romance is hard to believe. The actors do a nice job of mastering the poetic language, but not so much with mastering each other.
“The Ballad of Klook and Vinette”
Through Feb. 18. $28-$38. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-584-7450, horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” is a musical love story that loses its pitch.