Who’s to say what separates a good musical from a bad one? Jack Viertel, that’s who. Author of The Secret Life of the American Musical (IF YOU DON’T KNOW THIS BOOK READ IT TONIGHT), this accomplished musical theater writer and producer freely shares all his secrets about why some shows hit and some shows flop. He starts (pages 4-5) by saying “…this book is an attempt to describe the mechanics of the great musicals—how they were planned and built, and why, so often, they get under our skin and remain a part of us for a lifetime… Audiences really do like to be told a definite story in a compelling way. It has to have captivating characters, an exciting challenge for them to solve, and a solution that’s worthy of the time we’ve taken to watch it.” As I write a subjective review about a subjective art form I invite you to take Jack’s words as something close to objectivity. I think he’s right, that beyond genre or era, audiences are pretty consistent and need pretty consistent things to get wrapped up in a show. Flowers for the Room alternatingly does and doesn’t give the audience what it needs.

If you’re not familiar with Yellowtree Theatre (as I wasn’t until Saturday night) YOU SHOULD BE! Housed in an unassuming strip mall in the unassuming suburb of Osseo is Yellowtree’s hidden sanctuary of art. Trust your GPS when it tells you to park next to the gas station, walk past the frame store, and into the unknown at 320 5th Ave SE. As soon as you pass the box office you’re transported into an enchanted land of cozy chairs, chalkboard art, all the right concessions and a wildly impressive theater space. By some miracle of design, the space feels equally inviting to middle-aged Osseo-nians (that’s definitely not a word) and jaded Uptown artists like myself. This theater company will feel even more impressive if you take the time to look at their tremendous photos and video trailer. The great first impression doesn’t stop when you hear the beautifully stylized house music and see the live 4-piece band take their places.

My amazement at this company continued after we silenced our cell phones and the action began. The lighting was impeccable – it gave the stage that magic quality as though there was special air pumped into the room. The costumes were stellar; simple, unique, and expressive without becoming the center of attention. The opening scene is the wedding of our protagonists. The entire audience was in love with both partners, especially Jake (played by Zachary Stofer) who plays the role of the charming husband with glorious ease. The live band was singing along with Jake and an amazing world was being constructed before our eyes. This opening scene was perfection, the aforementioned Jack Viertel would approve in every way. It engaged the audience, introduced the characters, created the promise of the action to come and left us hungry for more. At the end of the first scene I was in love with everything; the actors, the songs, the barn-wood backdrop, music, theater, love, life! Then the playwright struck us with a tragedy at the worst possible moment (clearly intentionally) as tragedy tends to do. I was still intrigued and still in love. Where will the plot go? How will these charming characters react? What obstacles will they overcome to preserve the love they showed us at the wedding? And therein laid the problem…a thousand questions were raised and only a few were ever answered.

I wanted to love this show so much but script problems kept getting in my way. With more than any other show I’ve seen, I keep teetering between loving the show and finding it confusing. (slight spoilers ahead…)

I loved it:

The tragedy is staged with a brilliant simplicity that is both surreal and realistic. One protagonist ends up in a coma and we see them existing in a sort of limbo between this world and the next.

I loved it not:

In the limbo, another character can freely communicate with our protagonist in a way that’s never explained. The audience never gets to know if it’s a superpower or a fantasy or what’s actually going on. I kept waiting for an explanation that never arrived.

I loved it:

The vibe of the music is exactly what the world needs right now. In the same vein as Hadestown, the singers and live band miraculously find the middle ground between contemporary folk and musical theater. It’s a gorgeous sound.

I loved it not:

Within the lovely soundtrack, many musical opportunities were missed. In this cast of 5 great singers (plus 2 singers in the band) there were rarely moments of ensemble singing. The opening number had a great chorus that promised harmonies throughout but the vast majority of the show (even duets) had characters singing in alternating solos, feeling like it defied the harmonic promise of the first scene

I loved it:

The dialog of these characters was great. Finding a balance between commonplace language and existential musings it felt both clear and potentially profound.

I loved it not:

The song lyrics felt out of place for the characters singing them. As is usually the case with musicals, the dialog and lyrics were written by different people. In this case it was quite apparent and distracting in that each character would lose their established speech pattern and exchange it for an entirely different vocabulary with many perfect rhymes that felt forced and unrelated to the character’s non-song motivation.

I loved it:

The concept of the show was beautiful. As an examination of love and loss it had the recipe to pull at every audience member’s heartstrings.

I loved it not:

The pacing of this show was challenging with the tragedy happening so early, we barely got to see the characters in their ‘before’ lives so we could barely grasp how big of a tragedy it was that those lives were shattered. Seeing characters suffering in a hospital is difficult for an audience, it's heavy subject matter that is good fodder for a story but wasn't balanced in this show. Spending the vast majority of the story within the tragedy felt monotonous by act 2.

I loved it:

In broad strokes, this story touched on many emotions. Various scenes elicited hope, loss, sentimentality, acceptance, and perseverance. I saw other audience members grabbing onto those feeling as they arose. I heard more than one audible sniffle by audience members who were able to tune in with the palpable emotions in the air. But for me (and presumably for others who love the arc of a plot) those lovely moments felt sporadic and not building towards any linear resolution.

I loved it not:

Without a focused plot, this show feels like it didn’t live up to its potential. Without a main event at which we arrive, I dare say this show doesn’t really have a plot. I’m not saying it’s formless, but I’m saying it felt more like a meditation on loss. A meditation could be lovely too but (to quote Mr. Viertel again) “Audiences really do like to be told a definite story in a compelling way. It has to have captivating characters, an exciting challenge for them to solve, and a solution that’s worthy of the time we’ve taken to watch it.”

I loved it:

Flowers for the Room is a brave new piece. The playwright is onstage and the composer is leading the band. Seeing these two people put new art into the world is a lesson in ambition. The show has a new yet timeless feel. It’s both heady and accessible. It has the perfect motivation. It has the perfect style. It’s a new work and needs edits to find its balance. On the whole, people who create brave art are my favorite kind of people. If this production doesn’t yet have a perfect show, it does have a lot of sincere and talented artists taking risks. And for me, that’s more than enough reason to drive to Osseo.