"Tonight's performance is kind of a hybrid between a workshop and a full-blown performance," said Dennis Nyback, writer, producer and director of The Past is Calling, on Saturday night. Referencing the 1920s setting and disclosing that most of the actors would still be reading off of scripts, Nyberg finished his introduction to this Fertile Ground performance with, "This is jazz, and jazz is improvisational."
Initially set in 2014, the musical follows Bill (Leo Daedalus), a 1920s fanatic right down to his musical tastes and affinity for starched shirts and three-piece suits. As a deliveryman leaves a giant 1920s wooden phone booth in his apartment, Billâs neighbor Jane (Meghan Sinnott) teases him about his obsession with the decade, and he reflects on how he feels so out-of-step with the rest of the modern worldâincluding the people in it.
Then, before we know it, Bill is caught in a mystical conversation with his âpast selfâ in the phone booth, gets locked in and is transported back in time to a casino/night club in Hudson Lake, Indiana (insert your Doctor Who joke/fangirl moment here). After adjusting startlingly quickly to the whole time-travel situation, Bill meets a lineup of club guests and employees, including club owner Red, sassy flapper girl Dora, cocky playboy Rollo, thuggish gangster Nick, and Nickâs girlfriend Mabel, who Bill promptly falls in love with. Loud and spirited 1920s jazz music weaves its way throughout the love story, with simple, romantic lyrics written by Buck Evans, a jazz singer out of Alaska.
For all its lively music however, the show starts to feel a little hollow, with many of the lines coming off as if being read for the first time (which, in fairness, they might have been). As a result, little rapport or chemistry believably develops between the characters. Lindsay DiAnn as Mabel is an exception: She easily pulls off the role as the gangsterâs girlfriend, bored, sassy and annoyed one second and sweet and lovesick the next.
The real centerpiece of the show, though, is the band, led by cornet player Max Ribner, who brings liveliness and bright action with his frequent solos and his interplay with the actors and other band members.