Weightless, a rock opera, at SF Fringe Festival, EXIT Theater, 09/06/2012

Let us begin at the end: The opening night performance of the rock opera Weightless netted a standing ovation for its six performers and its creators, and it merited every cheer and every moment of applause.

The individual components of this bravura presentation, the performers, the music and the story, all operated at the highest levels of excellence.

The performers: Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses are superior musicians, and as a duo and as a gigging band with drummer Dan Harris, they are a crack outfit, precise, polished and perfect. Last night they were all this and more. Kilbane was at her very best on bass, with a deft, sure, nuanced touch and her amazing ability to sing complex melody and harmony lines over complex, often syncopated bass parts. Her singing is the singular strongest element of the performance of the piece, a unique voice that carries and lifts all the drama and emotion. Moses, clearly the musical director, used a variety of sounds on his keyboard to great effect, playing almost minimalist, gemlike fills and underpinnings with dynamics ranging from soft single sounds to rousing crescendos, while singing gorgeous harmony lines, gorgeously. The subtleties of Harris’s work on drums, seemingly-effortless, exact, focused and intensely creative, is a major factor in putting the music across. As an ensemble, this group is fine-tuned and supremely well-rehearsed.

The musicians who augmented the band are revelations. Lily Holbrook’s singing style is unique, powerful and perfectly balanced with Kate’s voice such that the two women truly sound like sisters and the relationship between them is palpable in their songs together. Holbrook fully inhabits her role with her voice, all her power and her vulnerability. It takes a formidable vocal presence to hang with Kate Kilbane, and Lily Holbrook is that presence; in Dan Moses’ words from the stage, she is “Lily Fucking Holbrook” and the audience fell in love with her. Josh Pollock, the male lead, has an arrestingly good speaking voice and his own presence and skill as a singer. It is his acting that shines here, his portrayal of a complex and real character, the antagonist, and his exchanges with the female leads, in speech and in song, are electrifying. And he can shred on electric guitar at the exalted level at which Kilbane and Moses perform. Narrator/chorus Alisha Ehrlich was flawless in her ability to be the main conveyor the plot without calling attention to herself, a high skill.

The music: There was not a musical moment in this piece that was anything less than perfectly conceived, intricately planned, wildly creative and effective. The musical style of the show can be described as jazz-inflected rock and pop and is remarkable in its accessible complexity, with more musical hooks and memorable choruses than one might expect in multi-song music that has the purpose of telling a unified story. The music itself moves, dances and excites, supporting the songs and their meaning with overwhelming compositional skill and a musical sensibility that pull the listener in and hold the audience throughout. The individual songs stand surprisingly well on their own; when this score is released as an album there are people who will wear it out until the laser melts the disk, just for the music.

The story: This audience was moved; it was the theater aspect of Weightless that won their hearts. Taken from Greek mythology, the bare story of sisters, a king and the intrusion of fate in the intrusive form of “the gods” is expectedly archetypal and revelatory about the human heart and the human condition and is satisfying in its own right. The magic here is that the drama and its heart are brought into high relief in song, in these songs, which, in the mouths and voices of these actors, take on nuance that makes these characters real, show us their insides as the action plays out. The intelligence of the lyrics of the songs and their intense, evocative poetry cause the piece to transcend the merely philosophical, the merely tragic, the merely moral, and they went to the core of this listener, who was caught up personally in the story and in the reality of the characters and their internal plight. The songs work as theatrical pieces and the songs work as songs; there is no sacrifice of one to the other.

The key strength of Weightless is the way in which its elements, each expert in itself, come together as musical theater, rock opera that truly affects the human heart.