"Melanie and the Record Man" is unquestionably a labor of love for Blackfriars Artistic Director John Haldoupis. The show — currently receiving its world premiere on the Blackfriars stage — tells the story of Melanie Safka, best known simply as Melanie, a folk singer who achieved national and international fame in the 1960's and 1970's. While most people remember her for her performance at the original Woodstock or her (unintentionally) career-defining song "Brand New Key" (you know, "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates..."), for Haldoupis Safka is a muse. He became entranced by her music and her lyrics at around age 14. He says he has "painted her music" ever since.
That level of passion is obvious in every facet of "Melanie and the Record Man." His set is fairly minimal for a Haldoupis creation, yet instantly evocative of the 60's and infused with warm, feminine colors. The script, co-written by Haldoupis, Safka, and Katharine Fisher, is by turns emotional, funny, and hopeful. The handpicked cast is stacked with top local talent. Haldoupis threw himself completely into this production, and it paid off. While opening night had a few bobbles — most of which were already being addressed by the end of that weekend — it also saw a packed house that drew Melanie fans from nine states and five countries. The show succeeds on multiple levels, not the least of which is spinning an engrossing story about an artist whom many have written off as a novelty act.
As the title suggests, "Melanie and the Record Man" is about more than Safka's musical journey. It is built around the love story between Safka and her husband, Peter Schekeryk, her producer and manager of decades who died of a heart attack in 2010. The show features two actors — Mandy Hassett as Melanie and Nick Faruch as Peter — reenacting key scenes from their life together, as well as Safka herself, who functions as a narrator, telling her own story.
As a seasoned musician and writer, Safka knows how to connect with an audience. After a few uncertain moments on opening night, she relaxed, opened up to the room, and laid her heart bare. "Melanie and the Record Man" covers the happy moments — Joan Baez sending her tea at Woodstock, her residency at a bizarre French theater, the enduring popularity of "Brand New Key" (a song she never wanted to release) — and the not-so-happy ones, too. Drug abuse, shady music-industry types, and money woes are fairly standard in almost any musician's story. But by having Safka herself on stage, commenting frankly on her own willful ignorance about what was going on, the proceedings have a real emotional weight.
Although there are many sweet, funny moments in the show — I loved the interactions between Safka and the younger version of herself — underscoring all of it are some very raw emotions. At various points on opening night, it was clear that Safka is still going through the grieving process of losing her husband. In addition to the narrator work, Safka sings a number of songs throughout the show. These, too, are raw. Her voice has changed with age, and at times her pitch approaches what I will term Dylan-esque. But the power and emotion she brought to her socially conscious songs, and the insightful lyrics she wrote for them, remain unchecked.
In addition to the leads, the cast also features Janine Mercandetti and Danny Hoskins in various incidental roles, Carl Del Buono and Robyn Fazio as back-up singers, and Safka's son, Beau Jarred Schekeryk, playing guitar and providing additional musical support. Hassett is good as young Melanie, sometimes even great. On some of the songs her voice swallowed the entire room, but there were occasional pitch issues as well. Faruch delivers an impressive performance, especially strong in his singing. He is magnetic and charming, and he and Hassett share a great initial chemistry.
Opening night included a few technical issues. The sound levels seemed off, there were some feedback problems at key moments, and the slickly produced opening video projections by Ron Heerkens Jr. wrapped with a clunky transition to the play itself. There are always kinks to work out with a new work. The larger issue was the play's length: it ran for more than three hours. It's a good show. It's smartly written, moving, funny, and includes some great songs. But anyone's attention is bound to wander after the three-hour mark. Haldoupis realizes this, and I'm told that 15 minutes have already been cut from the production, and they're looking to excise even more.
My immediate thoughts would be to take out the road-trip portion of the show — cute but unnecessary, and the driving allegory had already been hammered home — and I'm torn about the ending of the show, which on opening night essentially turned into a Melanie concert. Following a fantastic closing group number, with a smart change in backdrop, Safka returned to the stage and played a set of three or four of her songs. On the one hand, the group number was a perfect ending to the story. On the other, Safka's performance was so good, so moving, and Blackfriars is such a perfect, intimate space for her music, that I would hate to lose any of it. I watched as cell phones, lighters, and even a few cellphones with images of lighters, were raised in the audience during "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," and I think I got a tiny glimpse of what it must have been like to be part of Woodstock, and the movements of the 60's that defined Melanie's career and life. For anyone who lived through that, and who still holds out hope for that kind of change, "Melanie and the Record Man" is more than Safka's story. In a sense, it's their story as well.