The premise of Hundred Days, the new indie-rock musical at Z Space, sounds like it would be a huge downer. A young couple meets, falls in love and gets married right away, only to find out that one of them has a terminal illness and not long left to live. (Unlike many other such narratives, it's the guy who's wasting away before his time.) So Will and Sarah decide to shut themselves away from the world and live their last 100 days together as if they were 60 years, celebrating all the birthdays and anniversaries and other cherished memories they would have if they grew old together.
Certainly there are heartbreaking moments in the play, but the overwhelming experience of Hundred Days is one of joy. And I do mean overwhelming. The songs are so catchy, propulsive and soul-soaringly jubilant that at some point I realized that I'd spent a large portion of the show with a silly grin on my face.
Presented by Z Space and piece by piece productions with Encore Theatre Company, the show is conceived and created by married couple Abigail and Shaun Bengson, who double as a band called... wait for it... The Bengsons. They also star in the show, with a full band and chorus who take on roles in the story as needed, and they deliver the songs with such quirky exuberance that it's impossible to resist following wherever they want to take the narrative (with a smart book by Kate E. Ryan). Shaun's fast and folky acoustic-guitar strumming and Abigail's delightful alt-rock vocals establish a beautifully resonant intimacy and then swell into a magnificent full-ensemble sound with the drums thundering and the ensemble singing in transcendent unison.
Not all the songs are like that, certainly; there's a lot of stylistic variety while maintaining a distinctive unified sound. At the same time, though, there's not a clunker in the whole set. In a dynamic staging by director Anne Kauffman, the show has the look and feel of a rock concert, complete (at least on opening night) with a roaring crowd. Allen Willner's shifting lights accentuate that live-gig atmosphere, bathing the stage in one color or another when it's time to really rock out. But seemingly off-the-cuff stage patter in the beginning later becomes needed background for plot points in the play. The show smoothly segues from the informality of a tale told in a concert setting to more fully staged scenes.
Reggie D. White (whose Beyonce parody video "Dunkin Love" is currently going viral) and Amy Lizardo act as stand-ins for the couple in the story, sometimes silently acting out a scene while the Bengsons voice the dialogue in song, and occasionally singing the parts themselves (and forcefully, at that). At other times, particularly toward the end, the Bengsons fully embody the roles of Will and Sarah, bringing the whole emotional impact of their musical performance, presence and obvious chemistry into the bittersweet tale of this other, fictional couple.
All this is supposedly taking place in the 1940s, but the period setting never becomes important or even discernible, and of course it has no bearing on the musical style. We never hear about any war going on, and Christine Crook's costumes aren't noticeably informed by that period. The one possible relevance that the period has (besides possible medical advances since then) is how easy it is for Sarah and Will to seclude themselves in their home and remove themselves from any indication of what day or decade it really is. The letters pile up outside, but if they unplug the radio and the phone, they're disconnected. There'd be much more unplugging to be done today.
Otherwise manning a DJ set that includes an old-fashioned gramophone, Jo Lampert gives an achingly resonant performance as Will's best friend Max, a boisterous and bawdy dude whose devotion to his friend is absolute and tinged with (seemingly platonic) yearning. Melissa Kaitlyn Carter is a cheery presence as Sarah's best friend Caroline, and Dalene Mason is mournfully somber as Will's forbiddingly distant father. Rocking cellist El Beh doubles as the compassionate doctor who has to break the bad news (a far cry from the creepy nurse she played in Symmetry Theatre's recent Carnival Round the Central Figure).
Kauffman's staging makes full use of Z Space's cavernous performance space at Project Artaud, with the band and the world retreating behind a slowly lowering warehouse door. Silhouettes appear through the windows of the rear wall as shadows of the world that carries on outside at a markedly different pace from the life lived behind closed doors.
For a musical that's so much about creating memories to last and evoke a lifetime, Hundred Days succeeds brilliantly in etching its eloquent lines and infectious melodies indelibly on the brain. And I can't imagine wanting it any other way. Even days afterward, having heard the songs only once, I get a surge of visceral pleasure every time one of them runs through my head. I wouldn't want to forget a moment of it.
Hundred Days runs through April 6, 2014 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit zspace.org.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED