Most Annex Theatre shows are ambitious in one way or another, but Scotto Moore and Eddie DeHais challenge themselves on several fronts with Silhouette, a sci-fi a cappella musical that takes place in multiple futuristic locations and features densely woven song arrangements. The execution doesn’t always live up to the ambition, with an unbalanced book that could use a rewrite to clarify and enhance some characters’ motivations.
Some time hundreds of years in the future, a small community lives in relative peace on a far-flung planet, shrouded by a veil that prevents passers-by from spotting any signs of life. The citizens of Silhouette practice magic to keep this veil in place, but it’s more of a Clarke’s Third Law situation (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) than a dip into the fantasy realm.
When a disaffected pilot, Aurelia (Miranda Troutt), crash-lands in their town, she throws their precarious existence into question. Aurelia is a scout for the Fleet, kin to every imperialist organization in every piece of sci-fi ever, and the reason Silhouette’s citizens are hiding. Aurelia appears to be a nobody, but Miranda (Mandy Rose Nichøls), the leader of the group’s mutiny against the Fleet hundreds of years ago, doesn’t think they can afford to take that for granted. She wants a violent resolution, while the town’s mayor (Emily Jo Testa), constable (Aviona Rodriguez Brown) and doctor (Arika Gloud) urge a more measured approach.
Moore’s book is mostly scaffolding for his songs, showtune power-ballads backed by percussive glee-club vocalizing. The show isn’t quite sung-through, but moments between numbers tend to be brief. Because there’s a fair amount of world-building and rule-defining and history-explicating to be done, a lot of the songs are exposition dumps, reams of information and backstory unfurling in wordy verses. Vocal arrangements by Brian Kinyon and Moore keep the ensemble together on stage most of the time.
There’s a lot of longing in this town: Aurelia wants to do something meaningful with her life, Miranda wants to secure a safe future for her children, longtime Silhouette residents want to soar among the stars again. Moore’s best songs strip down to this core emotion, like “Flying in Circles,” Aurelia’s lament as she bides time on a seemingly pointless mission in her ship.
The emotional precision of Moore’s best songs butts heads with his narrative ambitions, which struggle to find room to stretch out. This is particularly evident in a whiplashing second act, which introduces a memorable Fleet interrogator (Alexei Cifrese) but rushes past a supposedly monumental betrayal by another character. From a story standpoint, Silhouette feels more like an introduction to a world than a satisfying examination of it.
Still, Silhouette has the potent moral dilemma key to most good sci-fi, as a group of anti-fascist crusaders is forced to confront the use of violence for their own aims. The battle for the wellbeing of Aurelia among Silhouette’s citizens asks the question: Is it our intentions or our actions that matter most?
Also a big plus: the visual chops of DeHais, who co-directs with Moore and brings the alien worlds to life. The scenic design by DeHais and Lenny Urbanowski uses modular white triangles to great effect, creating everything from a cramped cockpit to domestic spaces to a ship’s airlock. The limits of the Annex space never matter much when DeHais is at the helm.
And though there are some flat singing performances—a cappella is not forgiving—the leads are strong, with Troutt and Nichøls’ soaring vocals communicating the expanse of this universe, out among the stars.
Silhouette runs through May 19 at Annex Theatre.