IT'S NOT A PREREQUISITE, but being a fan of Van Morrison will undoubtedly enhance the experience of any audience member walking into Find Me Beside You, the world premiere of Many Hats Collaboration's "rock story ballet." The show is essentially a theatrical adaptation of Morrison's acclaimed album Astral Weeks, and musically the play does the album justice. Following the loose and somewhat trying narrative woven into Find Me Beside You can be difficult, but most Morrison fans will be happy to sit through 60 minutes of their favorite songs, sung by 10 talented Portland performers.
The play, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jessica Wallenfels, takes place during the '60s and '70s in Ireland during the days of the Northern Ireland riots. It follows Aeden (a well-cast and strong-voiced Dave Cole), his best friend (or soul mate? It isn't always clear) Bridget (Elizabeth Klinger), and Bridget's little sister Meagan (Emilee Yaakola), as they struggle with the times and their strange sort of love triangle. The play has no scripted dialogue, but tells its story by moving from song to song in the sequence of Morrison's album, utilizing dance and physical expression as its main storytelling devices. The show's narrative is sometimes awkwardly fragmented and can lend itself to melodrama, but the themes that Morrison grapples with in Astral Weeks (memories of a lost childhood, the hope for redemption) ultimately come out on stage in a compelling way.
Wallenfels effectively fuses clever direction with engaging dance and movement that weave one stage picture into another. And while her choreography can look rather awkward when embodied by an untrained actor, these moments are mostly overshadowed by the play's biggest strength: the music. Composer/arranger/music director Eric Nordin is at the top of his game with this production, and his vocal arrangements alone are worth the ticket price.
Many Hats has ultimately done well with Find Me Beside You. The show is imaginative, well cast, and its shortfalls are for the most part trumped by terrific music. Some audience members might leave the theater wondering what exactly they just saw, but most will no doubt be happy with an hour spent with a soulful and innovative production.