“The Bitter Pill,” a new musical featuring the songs of Billy Butler, is on stage at the Players Ring in Portsmouth through the end of October. NHPR’s Sean Hurley and theater critic Michael Curtiss attended a preview of the show and send us their thoughts.
NOTE: Please scroll to the bottom for a video preview.
The lights flicker at the Player’s Ring and I take a seat beside Michael Curtiss, whose New Hampshire-focused theater blog – Caught in the Act - I’ve been following for the last 6 years. “I love the experience of settling into my seat,” Curtis says, “and having that feeling of ‘I don't have any idea what I'm going to see.’”
We do know a few things. There will be music, dance, puppetry, acrobatics – and as Director Brandon James informed us moments earlier, “Everybody dies in this show!”
Which might seem like a spoiler – but as it turns out, The Bitter Pill is not the sort of show you can spoil. “When people ask me what this performance is," says actor John Lessard, “I say ‘I don't know.’ But I promise you if you come and see it you will never see anything like it ever again in your entire life.”
“No matter what,” actress Amanda Dane says, “people are going to go ‘Oh my gosh what was that?’ They're not going to know where to look.”
Curtiss and I don’t know where to look as Director James calls out, “Ok! Curtain speech has just ended! Billy - tinkle tinkle in the dark!”
And Billy Butler plinks the strings of his baby grand…and then a swirling light show starts as the band kicks in.
The cast of 10 - including a crew of puppeteers and circus performers - swarm the stage. Curtiss predicts that it’s during these chaotic opening moments that audiences will decide whether to swallow The Bitter Pill – or spit it out.
“What's going to happen I think,” Curtiss says, “is when they sit down and the show opens and the way that it opens for one thing is going to begin to strip away everything that they think they know about the theater experience and they're going to realize that this is nothing like what they've experienced before.”
As singers and sets change and song genres mash together, from rock to cabaret to ballad - both Curtiss and I drop our pens, stop taking notes.
There’s nothing long-term to follow. No main characters, no through-line story. But that, co-creator Ben Hart says, is the whole point. “For me I hope people feel transported to another universe,” Hart says, “like we've opened this vortex into another dimension and you get to go there for a time.”
Intermission arrives and I lean over to Michael Curtiss and ask what he thinks so far.
“It's definitely taken me on a trip that I did not expect to be on,” he says. “It's really wild.”
Before Act 2 begins, I search out Billy Butler back stage. Following the success of his two prior musicals, Missing: Wynter and Gay Bride of Frankenstein, Butler says The Bitter Pill is something different. “This is more of you know like going to see a band play,” he says, “but having some visuals to feast upon you know I mean.”
But it’s his music more than anything that shapes the otherly spirit of the show. His heart-ache, his dreams turned into songs, turned again into haunted vignettes. When I ask him what he thinks of the show, he shrugs. He hasn’t seen it. But, he says, “I would totally love to see it. Absolutely!”
But sitting behind the baby grand, his back turned from the stage, he can barely see his piano. Yet as Act 2 begins, Butler does turn around in his seat to watch his 21 year old daughter Emily perform.
There are confessions, love songs, gypsies. There are skeletons and caskets and tap dancing and singing puppets and a soul sipping devil and aerialists and acrobats. The first Act takes place in a nightclub slash cemetery. The second act in a cemetery slash nightclub.
Billy Butler says they could flip the acts and no one would know the difference. “I just want people to walk away feeling something,” he says. “You know how did it make you feel? What did you think?”
Questions I ask Michael Curtiss after the show.
Curtiss says he feels “Exhilarated. Stimulated. I've never seen anything like it. But I'm thrilled that I did. You walk in and you think OK this is going to be some form of show that I'm familiar with and it turned out to be absolutely not at all. It was completely free form and organic and wild and crazy and meandering.”
You don’t see or hear the show as much as you learn how to stop trying to figure it out - and go along for the ride.
“And isn't that what theater is all about?” Curtis asks me.
“Maybe I think I'm still trying to learn what it is all about,” I say.
“I think,” Curtiss says, “that if you're lucky you're always learning what it's about.
And The Bitter Pill is a very good lesson in that.
Due to some adult content, Sean suggests this is not a show for young kids.
Showtimes: The Bitter Pill runs from October 14-30th.
Fridays and Saturdays and 8:00 PM. Sundays on October 16th and 23rd at 7:00 PM. Sunday October 30th at 3:00 PM. Tickets here.