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Arts & Culture

“Row” An Inspirational New Musical That Is Also Fun and Entertaining

"Row" - Outside at the Clark
The Clark
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"Row" - Outside at the Clark

It’s not often you get to write a review that is also a preview. However, since the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s world premiere of the musical “Row” has just been released by Audible Theatre and almost simultaneously with the release it was announced it would be given a live production at the festival this summer, this is a two-for-one recommendation for the show.

“Row” is one of the most satisfying works I’ve encountered in a very long time as the material works on many levels. It effectively captures the excitement of Tori Murden trying to be the first woman to row alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Even more important, it captures the soul of an individual who despite amazing personal accomplishments needs a type of monastic journey to find peace and satisfaction with her life.

It’s a story that offers profound insights, yet is told with wry humor and is supported by a score that is almost subliminal in its charm. The music by Dawn Landes is ideal in supporting a mood as it finds the moment that needs a happy tune to break the tension. She also offers evocative songs that bring even more depth to poignant experiences. The book by Daniel Goldstein provides us with the power of a woman’s experience, while Landes’ lyrics add a philosophical understanding as to why a self-examined life is important.

“Row” is so good at stimulating the imagination that it is justifiable to wonder how a live performance can improve on it.

The imagination can replicate 40-foot waves in 110-mile an hour winds or emphasize the torture of being in the sun for over 80 days, most of which are spent moving oars in an ocean on only a couple of hours sleep. In person, both are difficult to achieve.

Yet, the choice to perform the show by the reflecting pool at the Clark Museum in Williamstown suggests the show will be an exciting event on its own. You can purchase tickets in advance for the July 13-August 8 run. And, I suggest you do. Based on the Audible presentation, I trust director Tyne Rafaeli to rise to the occasion.

Tori Murden is a 35-year-old woman who has already lived a worthy life. She got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Smith, where she starred on the basketball court. She later obtained a Master of Divinity degree and an MFA in writing from Harvard. Eventually she also earns a law degree.

However, her scholarly achievements are not used to build wealth or power. Her childhood was devoted to protecting her learning-disabled brother, Lamar. In the 1990s she worked in a poor Boston city hospital as a chaplain and later was a director of a regional center for the homeless. She lived for a while in Kenya trying the help ease the poverty of that nation.

Tori also had a craving for adventure. She climbed mountains on five continents and ice climbed Alaska’s Brooks and Muldrow Glacier. Again, this was not done for fame or glory. In the play, she asks a person to name the first woman to climb the summit of Mt. Everest. No answer. Then she asks, who was the first women to ski to the geographical South Pole? Again, no answer. She admits the latter was a trick question because she was that person, Her point was about female accomplishments being anonymous.

In “Row” we learn these things as flashbacks, because that is the point of the play. Rowing is a perfect metaphor for understanding life. As a rower you look back on what you are leaving instead of looking ahead to where you are going. The past is behind you, the future is unknown. All that’s left is the present.

Tori learns by challenging the ocean how small and helpless she is and that even a life well-lived and a devotion to the most vulnerable among us is not always satisfying. She has to learn that even the most compassionate, driven and accomplished person has little control of anything but her own life.

This is revealed through memories of the mentors in her journey through life. Perhaps the most influential was a Jesuit priest dying from cancer in Boston City Hospital. He tells her “You can’t travel the path to wisdom on a featherbed.”

Tori knew little about featherbeds. Indeed, her thesis at divinity school was “Theology of Adventure.” However, on her row she learns that adventure is as much an inward experience as it is conquering a challenge.

However, it is his other advice that resonates throughout the play. He tries to sooth her sense of not being able to change the world by telling her, “Let your heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Her arduous journey teaches that overcoming adversity and resiliency after failure is as important as is a victory.

“Row” is filled with many important life lessons but it is far from being a didactic piece of theater. There is whimsy and humor as well.

Consider that many in the play who give Tori the strength, wisdom and fortitude to do the impossible are Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Cher, Amelia Earhart and Muhammed Ali. There is even romance, as Tori whose full name is now Tori Murden McClure, proposes to her future husband from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. His answer? “Sure. Why not.”

Why not? It's the answer to why people find the courage to achieve the impossible.

“Row” is inspirational, but it also is a lot of fun. Listen to it and go see it. It's available now on Audible. Theatre and plays at the Clark in Williamstown July 13-August 8. For more information go to wtfestival.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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