Increasingly in recent years, Miami’s Mad Cat Theatre Company has explored founder-artistic director Paul Tei’s passion for music through concert presentations of albums.
Beginning with Paul and Linda McCartney’s “RAM” in 2015, Mad Cat Live! has offered performances of Harry Nilsson’s “The Point,” Neil Young’s “On the Beach,” the Eagles’ “On the Border” and “Black Sabbath Vol. 4.”
Now Tei and Mad Cat are taking a more theatrical turn with a musician’s work in “Varry Harry: An intimate encounter of music by Harry Nilsson.”
Devised by Mad Cat company members and directed by Tei, “Varry Harry” stars actor-musician Erik Fabregat as the late singer-songwriter. For this one, Mad Cat has turned the SandBox space at Miami Theater Center into what looks like a recording studio. The conceit is that Nilsson, a successful recording artist who shunned concerts and tours, is working on songs that encapsulate his never-easy journey through life.
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Nilsson, born in 1941, died in 1994 of a heart attack at 52. He had three marriages and seven children. Though he left school in the ninth grade, he proved a prodigiously talented composer whose tenor voice had a range of more than three octaves. In addition to his original songs, Nilsson was an astute cover artist, winning Grammys for his recordings of “Everybody’s Talkin’” (the theme from “Midnight Cowboy”) and Badfinger’s “Without You.”
“Varry Harry,” however, will tell you none of that history. The show imagines the audience as fly-on-the-wall observers, watching as Nilsson does his thing. What we see and hear is one extremely talented musician working through songs of painful autobiography, anger, lost love and more.
Tei and David Nail (who also designed the lighting) have created a space full of instruments and oddities. Maha McCain sits just outside the recording area, serving the artist drinks from a well-stocked bar, though from the looks of the lite beer empties all around him, Nilsson seems to have had a massive head start. Tei occasionally emerges to ask him if he needs anything or to fiddle with the thermostat in the frigid “studio,” but the show is largely a solo endeavor for Fabregat.
Fabregat, Darren Bruck and Matt Corey prerecorded tracks that add to the musical richness of certain songs, but others are more simply done – just the talented Fabregat singing and accompanying himself on the guitar.
Unless you happen to be a Nilsson aficionado, you’re unlikely to recognize the majority of the songs in “Varry Harry,” which is not to say that the 16 numbers don’t provide a real window into Nilsson’s talents as a lyricist, storyteller and stylistically versatile musician.
The aching, rocking “One” and the melancholy “Without Her,” two better known songs, come at the end of the show. Before that, Fabregat works his way through Nilsson’s own sad story in “1941,” “Cuddly Toy” (which was covered by the Monkees), the bouncing Beatles-style “Gotta Get Up,” “The Lottery Song” (additional vocals by Lindsey Corey), the furious “You’re Breaking My Heart” and other songs.
Though Fabregat is great, “Varry Harry” is not as strong in execution as it might be were it a more richly developed theater piece. The actor stays in his zone as a musician in a studio, never looking at or acknowledging the audience, which doesn’t quite know whether to applaud after each song — the natural impulse — or not. He has a bit in which he takes a call from Nilsson’s ex-wife, flying into a rage, but that dramatic moment is a rarity.
“Varry Harry,” which runs not much more than an hour, exists in a creatively blurry space somewhere between a fully realized theater piece and a concert. It does, however, have a compelling star in Fabregat.
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If you go
▪ What: ‘Varry Harry: An intimate encounter of music by Harry Nilsson.’
▪ Where: Mad Cat Theatre Company production in the SandBox at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores.
▪ When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, through March 18.
▪ Cost: $25 (students and seniors $15).