Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 14, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Fringe Festival, Notes on Me and You

Hartford Fringe Festival
through November 9, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Billed as a “new one-man musical” and a “visual album,” “Notes” is one of over twenty pre-recorded virtual productions being presented by the second annual Hartford Fringe Festival via streaming access for thirty days. 

With music by Dawson Atkin and lyrics by N. J. Collay, the show features Sam Vana singing and playing acoustic guitar, or accompanied by Atkin on off-camera piano, through most of its 42-minute length. Vana portrays an unnamed man who chronicles the illness and death of his life partner from HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s. Atkin and Vana are Hartt School students at the University of Hartford; Collay attends Brandeis University.

Documentary film footage of period demonstrations to support AIDS victims and funding for a cure are interspersed at several points. The only set is Vana sitting on a stool with additional backdrops of hand-drawn art. The production is directed and edited by Atkin.

“Notes” is not so much a traditional musical as a song cycle in the style of Adam Guettel’s “Myths and Hymns” or William Finn’s “Elegies.” Though it lacks the power and polish of those mature predecessors, “Notes” shows considerable promise that its young creative team have the talent to reach similar heights in the future.

The show’s modest production values strengthen its impact. While sometimes hampering his microphone access, Vana’s Covid face shield also connects his viewers during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic with the firsthand experience of his character thirty years earlier. And the use of pre-existing film both relieves the claustrophobic stage set and lifts the performer’s personal anguish to the broader level of redemptive social action.

Atkin’s music varies from soft and contemplative, through grief stricken and disconsolate, to rousing and galvanizing. A quiet instrumental interlude featuring piano and guitar is particularly poignant. Collay’s lyrics follow the musical arc with simple eloquence, repeating phrases like “you and me in perpetual motion” and “I’m still reaching for the dead” which become mantras. Vana’s appealing openness captures the full range of his character’s moods, from despair to cautious hope.