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'Powerhouse': the Story of a Forgotten Looney Tunes Composer

Sinking Ship Productions brings Raymond Scott’s fascinating story to life.

Photo by Justin Khalifa

Powerhouse is the story of a forgotten genius, known only for the television adaptation of his music he cared nothing about. Raymond Scott, once known as Harry Warnow, was a jazz composer in the 1930s and 40s who, contrary to what you would expect of the genre, was obsessed with technical perfection more than anything else, including his friends and family. An odd choice for a Looney Tune.

The story begins when Ray has already achieved some degree of success as a composer, being featured regularly on radio shows and gaining more notoriety by the moment. Thus, Powerhouse is never about the struggle for fame or fortune, but instead a driven, one might say compulsive individual's quest for musical perfection.

It's also not really about the Looney Tunes, or as the show calls them, "Kalamity Kartoons." While every moment the Hollywood animators' chorus and their puppets are on stage is phenomenal, featuring expert caricatures of the writing room as well as innovative and entertaining puppetry and voice acting, Powerhouse uses their scenes more as interludes than actual pieces of the tale. Tyler Bunch, Spencer Lott and Eric Wright, along with the designers from the Puppet Kitchen, bring the cartoons and their creators to life like nothing else could, but I wish there had been more integration between their story and Ray's before the very end. Though after all, for the disinterested composer, that may be the point.

The play runs through familiar tropes to anyone used to stories about misunderstood geniuses. From the romantic allure of Ray's brilliance for the clever young woman to the domestic discord that drives them apart when he is unable to separate himself from his work, Powerhouse is a play about relationships, and the struggle is played out with all three of Raymond Scott's wives. The show features fantastic roles for women, each Mrs. Scott different and intriguing as the actress catches all of her nuances.

Jessica Frey's Pearl is a confident young woman who knew Ray back when he was still Harry (and before the nose job), and struggles to maintain the control she has over her husband's domestic life even as he is swept away by his new obsession: Dorothy. Dorothy Collins, played by Hanley Smith, is Raymond's prodigy, a singing ingenue whose love of live performance (and Ray) draws the pair together with the same passion that slowly destroys them both. Even Mitzi (Clare McNulty), his third wife, has a light and a joy about her in her brief appearance in Ray's later years as a reclusive inventor.

Erik Lochtefeld's Raymond Scott, meanwhile, is odd, fascinating and alienating all at once, much as the real Scott must have been. His struggle to perfect himself, his nose, Dorothy, his music and his machines dominates the play, leaving the brilliant man unable to ever rest or be truly happy. And as the play incorporates plenty of historical material from the time period, including letters, journals and radio interviews into the text of the play itself, the heartbreaking struggles of Ray and Pearl become even more real.

Ray's obsession with mechanical perfection in music is particularly interesting in light of all of the modern technological innovations in the world of music. What this inventor was able to accomplish for what we would now consider electronic or techno music back in the 1940s is astounding, while the theme of music as idea rather than as performance is still a very relevant question for today. When the trumpet player in Scott's band asks him, "Goddammit, Ray. You want me to play it like it's yours or mine?" it forces you to consider what really is important in music—how it sounds or how it is meant to sound.

The music of Powerhouse is joyous, energetic and firmly plants you in the era, but it was a bit disappointing how little of it was actually live. Jessica Frey and Hanley Smith are extraordinary singers, of course, but none of the instrumental music is actually played onstage and some of the singing is prerecorded as well. It may have been truer to Raymond Scott's memory, of course, to maintain the absolute precision of his compositions, but having live music would have brought more energy and life to the performance.

Still, if there is anything that Powerhouse makes clear, it's that Raymond Scott should never have been forgotten, and we should be grateful to the Sinking Ship Ensemble for reviving his story. Its innovative use of puppetry, fascinating and troubling story and lively music meld together to create a one-of-a-kind play that's definitely worth seeing. This is a story that should be remembered.

Powerhouse plays at the New Ohio Theater through November 23. For more information, check out their website.

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