The musicals presented by Zach Theatre are often big-budget, over-the-top affairs (like the currently running “Matilda the Musical”), but occasionally Austin’s largest theater company will present smaller musical fare. Such is the case with its latest production, the regional premiere of “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette,” playing through May 26 on the company’s Kleberg stage.
Discovered by director (and Zach producing artistic director) Dave Steakley at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre New Musical Festival, “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” is a small, contained show focused on two characters, somewhat in the style of “The Last Five Years” and “John and Jen.” The key difference between “Ballad” and these two other musicals, though, is that the new musical is very much grounded in the African American experience.
With a book by Ché Walker and music and lyrics by Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lye-Fook, “Ballad” tells the story of the titular couple as they meet, rapidly fall in love and go through relationship ups and downs that are influenced by their attempts to navigate institutional discrimination. The show is far from a sociopolitical piece of agitprop, though. If anything, these political overtones are secondary to the driving thrust of the erotic relationship at the core of the story.
Unfortunately, Walker’s script frequently gets lost in the weeds of charting the deepening relationship. Both Klook and Vinette talk to the audience as much as each other, literally telling us about falling in love rather than showing it, and often reiterating through prose what has been more effectively conveyed through music and choreography. What begins as a playful exploration of noir tropes and clichés quickly becomes mired down in the script’s actual clichés of a relationship plagued by secrets and histories.
Zach’s production, though, is stronger than this source material, thanks to a stripped-down, evocative staging by Steakley (aided by a simple, yet creative, scenic/prop design from Scott Groh) anchored by the immense talents of perhaps the two most gorgeous vocalists in Austin musical theater — Chanel (as Vinette) and Roderick Sanford (as Klook). The pair’s strong chemistry tells the love story far better than the script does, and they excel at expressing Walker’s playful, complicated, frequently elliptical language. Chanel’s solos, especially, feature some moments of powerhouse pop soul that are pure stunners.
While probably not destined to be a musical theater classic, at least in its current draft, “The Ballad of Kook and Vinette” at Zach is an evocative production that looks and sounds great, due to the hard work and talents of Steakley, Chanel and Sanford.