Raspy rocker takes on Choir Boy

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Singer, songwriter, actress, punk-rocker, fashionista, tabloid bonanza and... piano mover?

That is part of Courtney Love's latest and thoroughly unexpected gig. She made her name in the 1990s with her primal rasp and confrontational songs.

In Kansas City Choir Boy, a music theatre piece, she will be playing the lead with its songwriter, Todd Almond, in the 84-seat South Village performance space Here from Jan 8 to 17.

Billed as a "theatricalised concept album", Kansas City Choir Boy is a song cycle with very little dialogue: The story of a couple pulled apart by ambition.

In Kansas City, he is a nameless musician who composes on his laptop and piano; she is a singer, Athena, and they are teenage sweethearts. He is content in the Midwest, while she leaves him behind to make it in New York. He tries to follow her and reconnect, but she has been seduced by the siren call of fame.

Kansas City Choir Boy is the most immediately eye-catching show in the Prototype festival, which is devoted to contemporary opera and innovative music theatre. Prototype asked its director, Kevin Newbury, to suggest a production and he had long envisioned Kansas City Choir Boy as what he calls "an immersive theatre experience."

Somewhat akin to David Byrne's Here Lies Love, the action races all around the audience: front, back, sides, with furniture and instruments included. There is also a complex video design, a pinpoint sound system and an impressive Zac Posen dress. The idea, Almond said, was: "Let's get it in that room and let's make it as big as the room can hold."

It is an elaborate production for a short run in a small room. Love said: "It's like putting out a single. If it gets catchy, then we do it in London or something. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We think it's really catchy and fabulous."

She is going to have to hit her marks. "I've never done musical theatre. I really wanted to do theatre, but probably I'm not ready to do a play quite yet," she said. "Fortuitously, Todd wrote this thing eight years ago and I met him and I fell in love with it."

She added: "It's baptism by fire, but I'm going to hang in and give it my best."

So a few days before Christmas in a Lafayette Street rehearsal room, she was singing with her shoulder pressed to an upright piano on wheels, swinging it into a new position and staring lovingly into Almond's eyes as he kept playing.

A string quartet was positioned to their left; a dancing chorus line of six "sirens", the work's other characters onstage, was moving in from the right.

"Sirens," Newbury instructed, "you're giving Courtney joy and temptation. Just think, 'Come and have fun with us, come to the city, Carnegie Hall and nightclubs. You're going to have it all'."

He added: "Every single thing you do is so important because the audience is sitting in your laps."

The music brings together, in varying proportions for each song, the piano foundation of cabaret and show tunes, the brittle propulsion of laptop rhythm tracks, and the warmth and bustle of string arrangements. "Disco meets Vivaldi," Newbury joked.

Love heard something else. After working on one of Almond's more dramatic songs, she said, she insisted he listen to The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. Its crescendo of intimacy and anger plays a man's sweet tenor voice (Lindsey Buckingham) against a woman's rasp (Stevie Nicks) - the same vocal contrast that runs through Kansas City Choir Boy.

Almond and Love have the same agent - Mark Subias, head of the theatre department at United Talent Agency, who is also Almond's husband. Subias played the music for Love.

Love said: "The composition was so adorable and beautiful, I couldn't stop listening to it. And Todd's voice reminds me of Lindsey Buckingham in his prime. It's that beautiful choirboy gorgeous voice, that creamy unicorn once-in-a-while voice."

Love does not read music and some of Almond's songs have tricky meters and complex syncopations. She has learnt them by ear, through repetition.

"It's all about letting it live with her for a while," Almond said. "And then she gets it and once she's got it, she's got it - it's in her bones. She's one of those people who just learns it so deeply. She lets it go all the way to her spine. And she comes back with so much colour of her own."

Their first serious work session turned into a 30-hour marathon, one that she stayed with because, Love confessed: "They let me smoke in their apartment."

Almond said he is learning some rock 'n' roll attitude from her. He said: "When I'm acting or singing, I worry about my voice or am I in tune - I'm in my head too much. There's something in her that has helped me release that."

Love concluded: "You've got to be in the moment for it to work. That is a rule of theatre and a rule of rock. It's universal."

 
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