“The Dolls of New Albion” conjures up the dead at NW Fringe Festival

 (Photo courtesy of Fringe Arts)

(Photo courtesy of Fringe Arts)

In Manayunk Theatre Company’s The Dolls of New Albion, inventor Annabel McAlistair (Anna Flynn-Meketon) resurrects a former lover, who has just drowned himself. When she restarts his heart, he pushes her kiss away and seemingly rejects her love.

The Steampunk opera tells the story of four generations of an imaginary town called New Albion after members of the McAlistair family discover a way to turn dead loved ones into reanimated “dolls.” It is Manayunk’s second festival show and is making its U.S. premiere this month.

The show may not have an uplifting start or ending, but director Gabriel Henninger said that its supernatural aspects appealed to him. He was “surprised how it draws from deep romantic themes,” he said.

First produced in 2012, the musical is part of a trilogy by Pennsylvania playwright Paul Shapera, said Henninger, co-founder of the company with Sean Connolly. The show has been produced in Europe and Canada.

“It’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein meets Victorian England meets the music of Rent,” music director Joshua McHugh explained during a rehearsal at St. Josaphat’s Church in Manayunk. Performances will be held at the Venice Island Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. on September 3-12. The festival itself will run from September 3-19.

The sound of live music

“My primary experience is classical music,” McHugh said, so this is an interesting stretch. He got his bachelor’s in music education from Temple University in 2013. The Cheltenham native is a singer, and he plays the piano and clarinet.

This is his first time working with the nonprofit Manayunk Theatre Company (which falls under the fiscal umbrella of the Manayunk Development Corporation). When McHugh isn’t pitching in at the company, he directs the choir at his home synagogue, Fort Washington’s Or Hadash, and sings at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City.

He will be directing the pit and singers during the Doll performance. The show has a live score with four musicians performing: McHugh as pianist, a bassist, a guitar-player, and a keyboardist providing the darkly resonant organ tones that underlie each number.

Philly’s Steampunk culture

The music is undoubtedly Steampunk, which combines a kind of Victorian historical aesthetic with otherwise fantastical and anachronistic machine power. And, yeah, a lot of leather and goggles and stuff like that.

In undertaking the show and launching a crowdfunding campaign, Henninger discovered that the Philly Steampunk community was “extremely passionate.” The campaign closed in August and raised about $2,000. The company also raised funds during a cabaret of songs from the show at Main Street’s Bourbon Blue.

“People latch onto the creativity of it,” he said of the distinctive Steampunk flourishes of costumes, and the way it “combines old and new.” But it’s not just about the clothes and other trappings: “It’s a lifestyle for a lot of people,” Henninger said of this “maker culture” of imaginative industrial enthusiasts.

Shining a light on young talent

Henninger grew up in Roxborough and graduated from Chestnut Hill College in May.

“Their talent is what I want to showcase,” he said of his young cast after an August 30 run-through at St. Josaphat’s. Many of the cast of seven are current Temple students or recent graduates of its theater program. They all participated in decorating large black blocks that make up the New Albion stage.

Henninger has given his cast a lot of artistic leeway. “We each came up with our own character bio, because the play is very vague,” said Julia Hopkins, a Temple sophomore who narrates the show. She decided that her Narrator character “is one of the last dolls of New Albion,” and is demonstrating her own story as well as the McAlistairs’.

A full staging in Manayunk

The movable set, assembled and disassembled onstage by the actors, represents different generations of New Albion as its residents learn the various consequences of living alongside mechanically resurrected specimens of humanity.

“One day you will learn, and you will burn like my heart burns,” is one of the show’s refrains. It’s a quality, fast-paced score sung with passion and obvious talent. Henninger is excited to do the show justice as a “fully-staged musical” in a high-quality venue, which previous productions haven’t been able to capture. The new Venice Island center boasts a 250-seat house.

“It’s a beautiful theater. It’s a great thing for Manayunk and Roxborough and the surrounding area,” he said.

Manayunk Theatre Company’s “The Dolls of New Albion” ($20) is coming to the Venice Island Performing Arts Center, 7 Lock Street in Manayunk (a wheelchair-accessible venue) from Sept. 3 to 12. Tickets for the 90-minute show are available for advance purchase online, or at the door.

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