Futurity, César Alvarez’s concept album made into a musical by Soho Rep. director Sarah Benson, is not at all about the future. The story of a fictional Union soldier dreaming his way through the mud, boredom and blood of the Civil War, it’s not about the past either. This concert/show performed by Alvarez’s band, The Lisps, tries to straddle both however, with an opening question: what did the future look like to people in the past? Probably, a lot like our present.
As innocent as Alvarez’s wide-eyed, shaggy-headed narrator plays it, he knows this already. Futurity is a fairly tangled but fun excuse to run with the idea and entertain some pretty utopian fantasies in the process. With his band members in tow, it’s also a ready pretext for reveling in a steady stream of deeply soulful or infectiously rousing musical numbers, from folk tunes sung by the ensemble to original songs featuring vocals by Lisps’ lead singer Sammy Tunis.
For it all to work however, we have to first agree that a fictional soldier, Julian Munro, conscripted into the 34th Ohio Infantry in 1864, could have the crazy dream of a machine capable of producing peace. And we have to accept the far-fetched premise that he could initiate and sustain a meaningful correspondence on this topic with the real-life Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron and popularly credited as the first ever computer scientist. That she died nearly a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War has no place in this feel-good dream.
But it does all work, and it does feel very good. Every song hits its mark, whether it’s a banjo-plucking piece of Americana like “Cumberland Pass” or “On the Banks of the Arkansas,” or the Lisps’ indie pop, fueled by Alvarez’s homey lyricism, in songs like “Every Egg Broke” or “Singularity.” The spirited 10-piece cast/band plays fiddle, cello, bass, banjo, guitar, saxophone, flute, accordion, organ and all kinds of percussion instruments and percussive objects. Benson has them marching uniformly as the infantry for the show’s length, all the while singing and carrying their instruments as if they were muskets and bayonets: no easy feat given the size of some of those. Alvarez and Tunis make an adorable pair on stage, and their intermittent banter creates a welcome, grounding counterpoint to the story’s fantastical premise and lofty idealism (on the night I attended, we learned that Eamon Goodman’s sax had a piece of lasagna wedged in it during the show’s opening number).
Yet as utterly charming as all of that is, the production never really dreams the future, although maybe that’s too much too expect from a simple musical, even from Soho Rep and Ars Nova. Ada and Julian fill in the narrative and performance gaps of this concert/show with David Neumann’s angular choreography, though neither singer looks at ease making gestures that riff on the obvious theme of a clock’s hands ticking. Emily Orling’s costume and set designs have lost the crazier touches they had in the show’s earlier versions, settling instead for something approximating historical realism, with a vaguely Victorian Ada and Julian in army fatigues (though a dusty turquoise replaces the Union blue).
A more fundamental issue is the show’s development of the “peace machine.” When the second act unveils a huge contraption of manually operated cogs and wheels and spinning casseroles, the Industrial-era esthetic provokes a moment of conceptual whiplash. Does the future seen from the past look no further than its own present? The pop-inflected gobbledygook sung so endearingly by Munro/Alvarez’s engineer/philosopher doesn’t yield any clues either. The machine is a “steam brain is a chance for the dance of the land lovin’ friends of the man made. / It’s a first name on a tag that you need for the breed and the cost of your mainframe.” To reference a different pop culture attempt to dream the future – and on whose anniversary I write – the creators of the sequel to Back to the Future hit 2015 on the mark in 1989; maybe my expectations were a little too high for content.
Still, I left humming, though it was “Cumberland Pass” that stayed with me of all the songs: you can’t beat a classic for staying power. As a musical, Futurity is a delightful, more thoughtful addition to the genre at a time when off-Broadway is looking increasingly to it to generate audiences, and hopefully make the transfer to Broadway, as Fun Home and Hamilton have done. Enjoy it in the present or your idea of the past, but don’t put it off for the future; that peace machine will certainly never be invented so there’s no knowing what tomorrow holds.