'Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One)'

A surreal musical recording of the 1940s yields a charming stage spectacle today

Dream weaver: Mark Stewart's Richard wonders at the wonders of the world.
Dream weaver: Mark Stewart's Richard wonders at the wonders of the world. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Peleato)

Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One)

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside,
Through Aug. 26
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.

Sometimes the key to creativity involves embracing your restrictions. In the case of Tongue and Groove Theatre's Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One), the major restriction is as follows: Aside from a scripted opening scene, the entire performance is a visual accompaniment to a 1940s record album of the same name by jazz composer Robert Scherman. That record is bizarre, combining narration and music to describe a dream in which the storyteller discovered three of the Seven Wonders of the World before turning his attention to various American landmarks. But Seven Wonders director David Yeakle embraces the constraints of the album to put on an evening of impressive pageantry – with more than a half-dozen costume changes for its ensemble – and a seamless blend of acting, mime, dance, and musical theatre.

The plot of Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One) is straightforward, as far as dream stories go: Richard (Mark Stewart) is an office drone in a Mad Men-looking workplace, with an eye on co-worker Martha (Courtney Hopkins). After work, Richard goes home, takes a shot of Evan Williams, and tucks himself in for the night. Then the record starts, and a narrator, speaking in Richard's voice as Stewart mimes the action, sends him to Egypt, Persia, Greece, New York, New Orleans, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Hawaii. Along the way, he encounters a dream version of Martha, and the two fall in love.

It's hard to imagine what the experience of listening to Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One) as a record album might have been like in the Forties, but it makes for a charming theatrical experience today. Yeakle wisely ramps up the visual interest, outfitting his ensemble in vibrant and distinctive costumes that play to period stereotypes of each locale (Mardi Gras costumes for New Orleans, coconut bras and grass skirts for Hawaii, etc.) and utilizing simple but evocative projections to set the scene and lots of movement and dancing. At 40 minutes, the repetitive nature of the show's structure (Richard and Martha go somewhere new, the ensemble emerges for a big dance piece, they move on to the next one) doesn't ever get boring.

Records like Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One) are curious artifacts. Scherman, who as a composer and producer worked with the likes of Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, clearly had a weird side that perhaps helps explain why he spent most of his career behind the scenes. But by embracing the restriction of building an entire two-act show (despite the record's 40-minute length) around a piece of post-war musical surrealism, Yeakle and Tongue and Groove manage to serve up a uniquely weird and creative stage spectacle.

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Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One), Tongue and Groove Theatre, David Yeakle, Mark Stewart, Courtney Hopkins

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