Arts / Performing Arts

Rare Mystery Musical Thriller Brings Noir Fun to Houston — Inside the Bayou City’s Unique World Premiere Moment

The Show's Director Tells PaperCity All

BY // 06.08.22

Imagine a man haunted by a traumatic past and lost love. Lost in a stasis of his own making, he never leaves his apartment and the world narrows to his view from the window and the voices he hears just beyond his apartment walls.

A mysterious couple moves in next door, and he finds himself lost in memories and dark reflections. And then, and then. . .

Sounds like the premise of a 1950s noir film or maybe a contemporary new vision on the genre, right? Well, now imagine the same story with singing and dancing because that’s Noir, the new musical from Broadway greats Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Kyle Jarrow (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical). And Noir made its world premiere not in New York, but in Houston at the Alley Theatre. (It’s now running at the Alley through July 3).

To shine a stage light on how the noir genre translates into musical theater, I spoke to the show’s director Darko Tresnjak. Though probably best known as the original director for the musicals A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder, for which he won a Tony, and the Broadway hit Anastasia, Tresnjak’s directorial range spans from Shakespeare to contemporary plays to opera.

New Noir

Noir is that rarity of 21st century musicals not based on a well-loved film or book. So when we began our conversation, I asked Tresnjak if he could give me the bases of this story about a heartbroken man.

“He starts looking at his neighbors through the window and listening through the wall,” Tresnjak says. “A young couple who’s clearly in trouble moves into the apartment next door.

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“Their story in the present starts to resemble his story in the past with his lover. The two stories start to echo each other.”

Alley Theatre – NOIR – Photographer Lynn Lane-371
Christy Altomare as Scarlet, Adam Kantor as The Neighbor, Morgan Marcell as The Wife, and David Guzman as The Husband. (Photo by Lynn Lane.)

This original story certainly fits the noir or new noir category except for one big exception, its creators conceived the original idea as a stage musical.

A longtime noir genre aficionado, Tresnjak enthusiastically plunges into a discussion of the film genre’s evolution and history from its East European roots to its flourishing in the United States in the forties to its sci-fi sub-genres — think Bladerunner — to contemporary Asian spins.

“They’re great yarns,” Tresnjak says when I ask why novelists and filmmakers return to the form decade after decade. It’s great storytelling that has to build. It has to be going places and the best movies tell stories about the human condition.

“A lot of genre fiction can entertain you, but they tell something about us as human beings. And because of the circumstances, perhaps amplifies it.”

Yet, the noir genre has seldom made the leap as new works for the stage and almost never as a musical. Perhaps the show that came closest is City of Angels, which Tresnjak also directed. Still he categorizes Angels as more of a send up of the genre.

Tresnjak says he doesn’t think Sheik and Jarrow were aware of his love for noir films when they approached him to direct, so it was happy creative happenstance.

“I fell in love with it,” Tresnjak says of the show. “Sometimes something comes along for me as a director and I recognize it’s very good, but I also say I’m not the right director for it. I’m very choosy.”

A Noir for Our Times

Tresnjak came aboard the project before the pandemic, and Sheik and Jarrow started work on the show several years ago, but Noir’s themes of isolation and separation seem almost too timely. Tresnjak says they all recognize the story will likely resonate now more than ever but, with the exception of Jarrow adding a new line of dialogue, very few changes were made from the original concept.

“It was all there before, but it’s astonishing because I think it will speak to people without preaching,” Tresnjak says. “How could it not when so many people were isolated, looking out the window and wondering how to pass the time?”

Alley Theatre – NOIR – Photographer Lynn Lane-166
Dance goes noir in this world premiere musical with choreography from Karla Puno Garcia. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Of all the types of performance art Tresnjak directs, he finds musicals some of the most challenging, but “the most satisfying.” So a world premiere musical becomes the ultimate creative mountain to climb.

“Nothing takes longer to get to the stage than a new musical,” Tresnjak says. “It’s so many moving pieces. I feel a sense of responsibility that I have to know that I’m the right person for the project.

“If I’m doing a Shakespeare play or Verdi opera and something is off, Shakespeare and Verdi are going to be OK,” Tresnjak laughs.

“But it does feel very precious, and I feel a great deal of responsibility to everybody but especially the authors,” he adds. “It’s years and years of work, fine tuning and calibrating.”

The cast and creative crew have found a temporary home at the Alley for this world premiere, with Tresnjak saying he has “nothing but admiration for the institution.”

Making themselves at home meant doing a little reconfiguring of the Hubbard Theater’s thrust stage, turning it into the classic proscenium model for plot purposes but also for a possible Broadway future where very few theater stages thrust out into the audience.

“It’s done in such a stylish way,” Tresnjak says of the design. Alley goers who know the Hubbard space need not fear. They’ll return it as they found it.

“I have to say Rob Melrose is such a splendid host and there’s such a humanity about this place and the level of professionalism,” Tresnjak says.

When not in rehearsals Tresnjak has spent some time exploring Houston’s arts scene. He’s taken a trip to the MFAH, seen the other world premiere now showing at the Alley, Born With Teeth, and also caught Houston Ballet’s world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s Pretty Things. And while the Noir producers certainly have their sights set on bringing the show to Broadway, Tresnjak says the cast and creative crew remain in the Houston here and now, focused on making the best musical possible for local Bayou City audiences.

“The satisfaction and the pride has to be in the present moment,” Tresnjak tells PaperCity. “That means the Alley and Houston audiences and making sure it communicates here. Then you give it up to the gods.”

Noir runs at the Alley Theatre through July 3.

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