Don’t tell the music bloggers, but Gloria Deluxe is one of the best kept secrets in New York’s indie-rock scene – even after opening for David Byrne at Bowery Ballroom. Armed to the teeth with – deep breath – guitar, trumpet, trombone, piano, drums, violin, viola, upright bass, accordion and the saw, the band has forged a cohesive yet eclectic sound that somehow manages to swing, rock and groove without collapsing under its own weight. It all hangs together on the distinctively charming voice of Cynthia Hopkins, who plays accordion and writes the music and lyrics.
Hopkins is also a brilliant playwright, actor, choreographer, multi-instrumentalist and probably numerous other things (font designer, perhaps?) sure to make the less-motivated among us think long and hard about the hours spent trolling YouTube. Her disarmingly natural stage presence exudes an intelligence as fierce as it is endearing. And that goes double for her singing, which commands a room with the guile of a sly librarian who acts surprised when her cooing sets the card catalog ablaze.
Hopkins’s band is currently accompanying her in the delightfully disorienting theatrical extravaganza Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. (The production is the prequel to the yet unfinished Accidental Trilogy; part one was presented at St. Ann’s in 2005.) To simply call the show musical theater would be reductive, despite the number of terrific songs, which number ten. Hopkins, collaborating with Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, has woven a dazzling tapestry of music, theater, dance and video that holds aloft a strange, sad tale of isolation and longing.
The ingenuously convoluted story centers on the 1979 farewell concert by cult-pop star Cameron Seymour, who famously fled, Cat Stevens-style, from the music industry (and her C.I.A. minders) to live the life of a devout Sufi in Morocco. Her daughter Mary Fern, also played by Hopkins, was two years old at the time of her disappearance; she’s now an adult filmmaker literally haunted by Seymour’s ghost.
Fern’s work-in-process documentary, Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, probes her mother’s motivation for leaving daughter and career behind, and tries to determine whether Seymour is still alive. The documentary, which is projected at intervals above the stage, depicts Fern’s first-hand accounts of her perilous journey to Morocco in search of Seymour, hilarious interviews with those who knew her mother in her prime and “archival” footage from her last concert – the one being performed on stage in DUMBO.
As I’ve just demonstrated, the narrative cat’s cradle that is Must Don’t Whip ‘Um doesn’t lend itself to easy summary, which is fitting; Cameron Seymour and Mary Fern’s lives are as opaque and multi-faceted as the genre-blending performance style that Hopkins & Co. have concocted. Though Must Don’t Whip ‘Um clearly belongs in the solar system birthed by The Wooster Group, the production artfully charts its own orbit, propelled in no small part by its smoking musical score.
In what could be interpreted as a nod to The Wooster Group’s cerebral deconstructions of classic plays, Hopkins (as Mary Fern) declares her project to be a reconstruction – of whatever fragments of her mother’s legacy she can piece together. Along the way, juicy, epistemic questions are raised about identity, authenticity and the sometimes fraudulent intimacy of family.
If it all sounds more geared for the head than the heart, well, it pretty much is – at least until the music kicks in again and Hopkins electrifies the story with emotional power. The simultaneous video projection of the onstage – and backstage – action, during which Seymour unravels in a delirious emotional breakdown, is used to exhilarating effect, especially when it shows the actors from a perspective that contradicts what we’re seeing with our own eyes.
Seeing is never believing in Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, and it would give away some of the work’s amusing twists and turns to elaborate further. But it must be said that the show’s haunting musical finale, in which mother and daughter appear to merge in a single, phantom presence, is a visually stunning coup de theatre that won’t soon be forgotten. Theater-goers quick enough to catch Must Don’t Whip ‘Um before it closes February 4th will get the rare pleasure of walking out not only humming the score but savoring the images and contemplating the ideas.