Beware of hucksters. In the musical “See What I Wanna See,” in a splendid production in Center City from 11th Hour Theatre Company, you get a special: two hucksters for one show. And while you may be stymied by what the show is trying to communicate, you’ll be impressed by the way 11th Hour’s solid production honors it.
The first half of “See What I Wanna See,” with an affecting score and book by Michael John LaChiusa, deals with a low-life who lures a businessman and his wife into Central Park on the promise of unearthing hidden treasure there. The huckster knocks out the businessman and rapes his wife. One of them ends up dead. The survivors, a witness, and a medium who channels the victim all tell what they saw. No two versions match. Each could have happened.
The second huckster — well, we’ll get to him, but first: Have you seen Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film “Rashomon?” If yes, you’ll remember a plot along similar lines but set solidly in Japanese culture. “Rashomon” is based on the work of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. His short stories also provide the material for “See What I Wanna See,” whose first act is set immediately after a showing of “Rashomon” – tying the film’s allegory to the situation the musical creates.
Fair enough. In the second half, the huckster is a priest whose parishioners in downtown Manhattan have witnessed the sickening fall of the Twin Towers and are searching for an explanation of the tragedy. The priest cannot offer a theological one. His faith is shattered and in its destruction he begins a hoax that exploits the very idea of faith: A miracle will occur in Central Park. (In “See What I Wanna See,” Central Park is the capital of gullibility.)
What are the connections between the first and second halves of “See What I Wanna See?” Aside from the notion that a huckster will always find a sucker and that the truth — from courtroom testimony to theological Word — is elusive, the show is murky about what it says. That’s made worse because from its title through its stylized storytelling, “See What I Wanna See” is intent on selling us something more, particularly about the concept of faith. On that matter, it never makes its point.
The 11th Hour production, directed fluidly by company co-founder Megan Nicole O’Brien, is lit carefully by Dominic Chacon to fit its several moods, and Toby Pettit’s crisp sound design puts the well-voiced cast – Cara Noel Antosca, Michael Philip O’Brien, Billy Bustamante, Jake Blouch and Nancie Sanderson — one-up on LaChiusa’s plot-driving lyrics.
In the past few seasons, 11th Hour Theatre Company has become the city’s producer of “concert shows” – musicals staged without full productions, but with their books and scores intact, a la the enormously popular Encores! series in New York. It was a smart move – no Philadelphia stage company was producing concert versions of musicals, less expensive than full productions and a way for 11th Hour to support a full season on a limited budget.
“See What I Wanna See” is the company’s single fully produced show this year — an intriguing choice, smoothly done. Even though the show itself doesn’t provide the clarity for us to see what we want to see from its message, the 11th Hour production makes it well worth seeing.
“See What I Wanna See,” produced by 11th Hour Theatre Company, runs through May 15 at the theater on the fourth floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House, behind Christ Church on Second Street just north of Market Street.