BROOKLYN — The idea seemed loaded with possibilities. In creating The Good Swimmer, composer Heidi Rodewald, best known for the show and film Passing Strange, seized upon the Red Cross manual Life Saving and Water Safety. Published as the U.S. was slipping into the Vietnam War, this institutional book paradoxically saved men from the ocean who were sent to their death on land.
After a few years of development, The Good Swimmer arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Fisher for a four-performance run through Dec. 1 in a Kevin Newbury production that walked a line between the realistic and impressionistic. Fueled by Rodewald’s nine-person band and four-voice chorus, and clocking in at roughly 80 minutes, The Good Swimmer was a theatrical song cycle with a loose overall narrative. Songs weren’t tidy packages; they maintained the arioso-like unpredictability demanded by the text, much of which was adapted from the lifesaving manual by lyricist Donna Di Novelli, often with near-obsessive repetition to make key points.
Much of the novelty came from the clash of blunt, clinical, instructional prose incongruously jammed into pop-music melodic contours and then given the heartfelt delivery of an expressively deep pop ballad by lead vocalist David Driver. However, that technique wore thin quickly – even though the piece moved on, at one point, to a submarine manual. In effect, the work’s expressive reach was narrowed by its own artifice.
Central characters, more implied than seen, formed the backbone of this backward look by a lifeguard at the one person she couldn’t save, her brother in the Vietnam War. But the more personal elements were obscured by the sense of objective observation fostered by the instructional manual and a narrative that was too loose to have the kind of momentum the story deserved. The Vietnam War element hovered in the background, coming forward most decisively in a section about falling into the ocean by accident. Clothes must be shed immediately to avoid exhaustion. Demonstrating this, a man seen mostly in silhouette traded his clothes for combat gear. You wanted to feel for him, but he seemed so far away – and I say this as someone who narrowly escaped the Vietnam draft.
Luckily, the music had plenty of layers, including references to pop music of the period, whether hard-driving garage bands or echoes of the soul group The 5th Dimension in the backup vocal writing. Driver occasionally seemed to be referencing Elvis Presley singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. But the key word here is “reference.” Nothing was so specific as to make the score seem retro. The music also had atmospheric duties: The first note heard in The Good Swimmer was from a bass clarinet – not an instrument you’d expect in a pop-based setting. The bass clarinet returned ominously and to good effect when the prospect of drowning arose. Yet with all of the work the music took on, there wasn’t the kind of surface engagement that the pop-music manner might lead you to hope for. Nothing sent you out of the theater itching to revisit the score, which perhaps had too much on its mind to be charming.
The production was among Newbury’s best. Backup singers were kept behind a scrim on which all sorts of oceanic computerized images were projected. The central visual metaphor was a lifeguard stand that was rarely right-side up until the end. This constantly reminded you not to take anything in this show on a mere surface level. One song about swallows had images of dense flocks of birds that moved at an aggressive speed. It felt both poetic and malevolent, perhaps suggesting a huge swarm of insects.
One section was devoted to doubled drowning, when one person ineptly attempts to rescue another and they both go down. This is one place where my personal experience verified the stage experience. Having been caught in my share of undertows and rip tides, I can say that the fusion of Newbury’s direction, Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s set, and the Greg Emetaz video design captured the claustrophobia of being overwhelmed by something as infinite and elemental as the sea. For all of its effective individual moments, though, the show just kind of passed by, and none too strangely.
The Good Swimmer continues at BAM through Dec. 1. For information and tickets, go here.