Haunting and wholehearted

Affecting new musical "Triangle" turns tragedy around

TheatreWorks nurtures developing plays and musicals in its New Works Festival each year, then enjoys mounting full productions of the finished products. That's been the case with the intriguing work opening the company's 46th season: "Triangle," an affecting and haunting new musical with music by Curtis Moore and lyrics by Thomas Mizer. Lilting, lyrical music creates a stirring soundscape for a pair of love stories in this dramatic fiction that uses the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 as its background context.

The story opens with two modern-day scientists-in-training, Brian (Ross Lekites) and Cynthia (Sharon Rietkerk), prevented from getting into their Brown Building offices in Manhattan because of the centennial ceremony for the 146 men and women who died there in the horrific tragedy. As names are read in front of the building, an impatient Brian collides with Ben (Zachary Prince), triggering a palpable love-at-first-sight moment between them. When Brian finally succeeds in getting to his office on the ninth floor -- where the worst of the fire happened -- he's visited by an apparition he can't explain: a young woman who calls to him for help (Megan McGinnis as Sarah).

As Brian and Ben navigate their feelings for each other, we also begin seeing Sarah and her sister Chaya (also Rietkerk), recent Jewish immigrants to New York. Sarah has landed a much-needed job at the Triangle Factory, but almost immediately incurs the wrath of her boss (Rolf Saxon) by insisting that she must take Saturday off for Shabbos observance. She's defended and kept employed by her line boss, Vincenzo (also Prince), and befriended by his sister, Theresa (Laura D'Andre). The hardships of the factory are lightened by these growing friendships and by home scenes as the two sisters adjust to American life.

These parallel stories unfold both separately and together, gradually revealing crucial information about Brian's past as well as Sarah's struggles. Brian has a problem connecting with others; Sarah's old-world beliefs face challenges as she grows fond of Vincenzo and becomes emboldened by American freedoms. As the conflicts lead to crisis, we realize this isn't so much a story about a tragic fire as it is one of human connection and the risks one must take in order to experience life to its fullest. Death becomes an afterthought, a nagging detail that must ultimately come to all, but which cannot diminish the power of love.

The work moves forward song by song, almost operatic in style with minimal dialogue, shifting quickly between centuries and circumstances. There are a few loose ends that don't quite add up and some contradictions in the character of Ben that need resolving, but overall it's an affecting piece of theater that leaves one uplifted and refreshed. The music has a sameness to it; as with most modern musicals, there are no songs to go out humming. Still, the score is pretty and pleasant, and the performers deliver it with plenty of emotional gusto.

The ensemble is absolutely stunning, with performers well-matched to their roles and beautiful voices that make for standout solos but also blend in gorgeous harmonies. Lekites wins us over with boyish good looks and playful nerdiness, his expressions revealing volumes. His confident vocals soar through solos such as "Jenni," "Save Me Now" and "Drive Away," and pair up equally well in duets with both Prince and McGinnis. "Safe" is a tour de force that rightfully brings us to the conclusion, with McGinnis and Lekites driving the point home in superb song.

Locals might remember McGinnis from TheatreWorks' 2010 production of "Daddy Long Legs"; she's more grown-up now, and her vocal skills even better. Prince also shines in numerous solos and duets, and truly brings the house down in "Daughter's Hand," demonstrating flawless technique as well as feeling. Rietkerk nails a welcome comic solo in "Just a Little More," and D'Andre shows off vocal power in "What Are You Going to Do?" All the ensemble numbers are thrilling examples of vocal blending, no doubt due to the guidance of musical director James Sampliner.

The set is a marvel of moving walls and furniture that keep the action flowing, thanks to scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman. Simple and attractive costumes by Cathleen Edwards effectively delineate character and period, while Paul Toben's lighting design nicely augments the action and mood and sound design by Brendan Aanes keeps vocals front and center. Leslie Martinson deserves a nod for spot-on casting.

Director Meredith McDonough overcomes the work's narrative complexity with a clear vision, a sure knowledge of the through-line and confidence about what audiences will learn. The musical's message captures our hearts, reminding us that love may not be safe, but it's worth everything.

What: "Triangle," presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Aug. 2. Tuesday-Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday (except Aug. 2), 7 p.m. ; Saturday (except Aug. 1)-Sunday, 2 p.m; Wednesday, July 29, 2 p.m.

Cost: $19-$74.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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