Washington Ensemble Theatre’s first-ever original musical production, The Callers, crosses the lives of phone sex workers, phone psychics and the people who dial them. Both hotlines answer cries for help from complete strangers as they turn a profit on the lonely and the bereaved.
All four of the musical’s lead characters fall into one of two camps: male phone psychics and female phone sex workers. Bea (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), who is grieving the death of her fiancé, has just moved in with her friend Emma (Kate Sumpter), a jaded chat line employee. Emma has been making regular calls to phone psychic Viktor (Ali el-Gasseir, who co-wrote the play with Ella Dorband) since she lost her mother some time ago. As Emma trains Bea in the art of phone sex, Viktor coaches his new hire, the timid and well-meaning Kevin, played by composer Richard Andriessen.
“Calling Viktor is a bit of fun and some reassurance,” Emma justifies, using the same argument many of her own clients might. Assurance, as the cast sings in their opening number, is what all of the callers seek and what Victor, Kevin, Emma and Bea attempt to provide. As it turns out, being a phone psychic is about 1% premonition and 99% intuition—it’s the callers they must connect with, not the spirits of their loved ones. This causes complications for Kevin, whose telephonic romance with Bea leads to unexpectedly disastrous consequences.
As Viktor, el-Gasseir nails the phony, reassuring charm of a used-car salesman, and Kate Sumpter’s fast-talking Emma provides banter at once upbeat and cynical—a best pal straight out of a ’90s sitcom. As the emotional center of the play, Nako anchors the show with her natural presence and sweet, solid voice. A caller named Camille (Carol Thompson, who also plays multiple instruments) is an awkward, endearing cat-lady who calls both psychic and sex hotlines. Her tender, first-time conversation with Bea delivers one of the play’s strongest moments of insight.
Scenic designer Andrea Bryn Bush covered the stage with shellacked pages of a yellowing phonebook and lined the walls of the theatre with nearly 100 plastic phones, their multitude seeming to represent the world of possibility: any one could ring at any time. And they do, transforming a scene into the stage equivalent of a film split-screen and back again. On stage, unlike on screen, characters conversing by phone can make eye contact and touch, making for more engaging scenes that blur both the physical and emotional distances between the characters.
Creative staging (by director Andrew Russell) and spotlights (designed by Charlie Pennebaker) shift scenes rapidly and flawlessly. The most impressive—and creepy—lighting effect is the sinister shadow of Bea’s fiancé projected onto the brick building behind the theatre, and glimpsed through WET’s upstage windows.
The show was in part inspired by Miss Cleo, famed Seattle-based phone psychic of the 1990s, and hints of the decade—a bandana-sporting Tupac fan, a Ouija board reference—find their way into the show without being excessive. Snippets from ’90s hits like Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and Beck’s “Loser” are interspersed with perfect comedic timing among the show’s original songs, which do their job but aren’t particularly memorable.
Many of the lyrics feel as general as Victor’s vague predictions, but what the songs lack in substance the performers make up for with their emotive and earnest, if sometimes wavering, deliveries. The simple and appropriately campy choreography incorporates long twisting phone chords, a heartwarming ’50s do-wop number, and a spontaneous-yet-choreographed club scene reminiscent of ’90s teen comedies. The standout musical number was a flawlessly executed montage of Bea and Kevin’s developing relationship with the supporting cast providing a plucky, banjo and whistle soundtrack and Victor hovering around them blowing bubbles.
It’s these occasional moments of directorial magic that capture the audience and make the 90-minute show fly by—until the finale sneaks up with all the shock and discomfort of a mis-dialed number. While some plot twists come along with a sense of dramatic justice, the ending felt as if the writers were refusing to take the audience where they wanted to go—an interesting choice for a musical comedy, one of few genres in which easy endings are often acceptable. But the charms of this production outweigh its extreme, perplexing conclusion.
The Callers plays at Washington Ensemble Theatre through Monday, Feb. 6. For more information visit, www.washingtonensemble.org.