Theatrical Version of Neil Young's Greendale Leaves an Unpleasant Aftertaste

Rooted in his signature bluesy folk-rock and branching out into all sorts of other forms, Greendale has become Neil Young's musical kudzu. What started in 2003 as an "audio novel," by Young's description, already has been performed by Young on CD, DVD and in live concerts with his band Crazy Horse (bootleg footage of which is seeded on YouTube). Young directed his own 87-minute movie of Greendale, also in 2003, starring family and friends as the characters, all lip-synching to his voice. The disjointed 10-song story of a farm family torn apart by tragedy also has been published as an art book and soon will be out as a graphic novel from Vertigo Comics, co-written by Young and Joshua Dysart.

 It's all about branding, and Neil Young—libertarian singer-poet, loyal Canadian and, at 62, one of the most revered of the Woodstock generation's living musical saints—still sells. If further transmogrifications were to include Greendale the multigrain breakfast cereal and Greendale the eco-friendly engine additive, die-hard fans would probably buy them.

 The stinkweed in the garden of Greendale, however, has to be the new "rock opera" version adapted and performed by Dallas' Undermain Theatre company. Of all the places to get the rights to tinker with Young's work—Undermain? They are not a theater that knows how to handle music, though Bruce DuBose and Katherine Owens, the husband-and-wife team who direct, write and/or play the lead (in DuBose's case) in most of their productions, appear to have a tin ear to that fact. Their last musical, Waiting for a Train, a dreary bio about country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, was written by and starred DuBose, who neglected to learn how to yodel. They are not helped by the songs in Greendale whose repetitive two- and three-chord melodies are anemic compared to Young's early and mid-career stuff.

No problems with the musicians here. This whole enterprise would not have happened without the involvement of some standouts from the Dallas music scene. Lead guitarist Kenny Withrow is a founding member of and still plays with New Bohemians. Bassist Paul Semrad played for a decade with Course of Empire. Drummer Alan Emert is a double Grammy winner who has recorded with a number of Texas bands, including Brave Combo. For the Undermain show they are a magical and mighty trio who could probably rock out more if they weren't stuck way upstage behind actors with voices so negligible they have to sing into both head mikes and standing microphones to be heard.

 Double amplification doesn't do most of this nine-member cast any favors. Only three—Jonathan Brooks, Stefanie Tovar and Newton Pittman—can sing. Brooks, as handsome as Young was in his 20s, plays Greendale's fallen hero, Jed, the kid who makes a "split-second tragic blunder" and goes to prison for shooting a highway patrolman. Brooks has only scant moments in the spotlight, but he manages beautifully to duplicate Young's clear, plaintive tenor. Tovar, in dual roles, puts a husky growl into her powerful vocals. Pittman, a crunchy baritone, turns one of the show's best numbers, "Devil's Sidewalk," into a hypnotic mantra about the presence of evil in everyday life. He sings: "Some things are getting better/Other things a little worse/It's a situation/Much like a curse."

 DuBose keeps casting himself in singing roles, even though about the best he can do is talk-croak the lyrics. Playing Greendale's sellout artist, Earl Green, he stalks the stage with a strange shit-eating grin on his face. Another talk-singer, Richard Rollin, does juice up the energy a notch as crotchety Grandpa, a geezer driven to sudden death by a pack of paparazzi.

 Guess it's time to recap the plot of Greendale, such as it is. Anyone unfamiliar with Young's dreamlike material would certainly grow more confused by Undermain's unfocused and un-dynamic staging by director Owens. There are points in this 100-minute show when absolutely nothing happens onstage. Long stretches of...nothing. Then someone will plant themselves front and center, stare off into the middle distance above the audience's heads and stoically sing (or try to). During some scenes, actors drift hither and thither in extreme slo-mo, looking ultra-serious and pantomiming hoeing and raking like performers in a retro-Soviet agriculture pageant.

 The plot: The Green family of rural California lives on a ranch. Grandma (Marjorie Hayes) and Grandpa sing about wanting life to be more like Mayberry. Earl paints pictures nobody wants until he's visited by the devil, after which he's worshipped as a pop icon. His wife, Edith (Regina Yunker, another of the non-singers), gathers eggs and looks perpetually worried. Son Jed shoots the cop and goes to prison amid media hoopla. His sister, Sun (Kristen Campbell, pretty but insistently off-key), becomes an eco-warrior with activist Earth Brown (Ian Sinclair). Sun's cat dies, so she blows up a power company (or something) and ends the show by heading for Alaska while inciting everyone to "Be the Rain." That's pretty much it.

As rock operas go, it's not Hair or Rent. DuBose's "adaptation" amounts to very little beyond getting actors to sing Young's songs. There's no script to speak of, no exploration of anything beyond what can be heard and seen in Young's own performances of Greendale, which weren't all that thrilling to start with.

 Young's best years musically probably are behind him. Same goes for Undermain's reputation for doing sharp, polished productions of vibrant new pieces. Now winding up its 24th season, this company for too long has been content to put on erratic and unforgivably sloppy work. Their shows don't even look sufficiently rehearsed. The finale of Greendale finds the cast bopping in a disorganized shuffle as the fine musicians get in their last good licks. It's as if choreographer Sara Romersberger gave up and told the cast just to wave their arms and walk in circles. There is a lot of waving and walking, not always to the beat.

 Visually, the show resembles a jam session in a cluttered garage. Undermain does little to transform their cold concrete bunker below Deep Ellum. Greendale's scenic designer Robert Winn painted the floor green, slapped a few tattoo-like images on the bare back walls and threw a few chairs and stools onto the stage. With six bulky floor-to-ceiling columns breaking up the space, it must be murder trying to build any set that doesn't obstruct even more of the audience's view, but there are talented set designers in this town who would try. With the lighting, Steve Woods does manage somehow to bring a sunny glow into the gloom. 

 From the seats, the wear and tear on Undermain's infrastructure is obvious. Large chunks of the low ceiling above the audience are gouged out. The rickety wooden platforms supporting tiered rows of well-worn chairs are creaky and splintered. The lobby and lounge are a mess. And they still have only the one-seat-per-gender restrooms. Upstairs. To get through a show here comfortably, it's necessary to restrict liquids for at least two days.

 If it's to continue, Undermain needs to undergo a makeover. Other, newer theater companies have supplanted this once-lauded presenter of the avant-garde. Kitchen Dog Theater, now in its second decade, attracts stronger actors and directors, and does a fuller season of more dangerous material. Even for its weirdest shows, Kitchen Dog has production values that are first-rate, with designers trying some stunningly original things with set, lights and sound. Uptown Players, Contemporary Theater of Dallas and Second Thought consistently achieve an overall level of artistic excellence that Undermain hasn't touched in a decade.

 They don't seem to realize this in their basement on Main Street, perhaps because they don't crawl out to see the work of their competitors often enough. Owens and DuBose are stuck in a style that went out of fashion in the 1980s, when the rough-hewn and partially improvised were all the rage in Dallas arts. The audience knows better and demands better now. There are too many good productions going on—three more open this week, including the highly anticipated Richard III at Kitchen Dog starring actor-director René Moreno—to settle for anything as half-baked as Undermain's hippie-dippy rock flop.