Latte Da explores ‘theater with music’ in ‘Song of Extinction’

February 21, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

As a company, Theater Latte Da has always been dedicated to producing high-quality musical theater. That just doesn't mean the likes of Gypsy, The Full Monty, or last year's Violet. Latte Da's past work includes several productions of All is Calm, where the music of the trenches is merged with a story about the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Their latest piece, Song of Extinction, follows a similar path. Described as a drama with music, the E.M. Lewis show examines the life of teenager Max, a gifted musician who is spiraling into depression, and the refugee biology teacher who helps him back from the abyss.The show opens this weekend at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio.

"As part of our selection process, we ask a series of questions: Is musical instrumental to the storytelling? Does story and music intersect in new and provocative ways? Is the writer venturing into new, adventurous territory? Does it have something important to say to this community at this time? Does it move me?" says Peter Rothstein, the artistic director of Theater Latte Da and the show's director. "Song of Extinction does all of these things in profound ways. I wasn't aware of E.M. Lewis's work beforehand, but I became an instant fan."

In the play, Max's world is rocked by his mother's terminal illness. His father attempts to save a small section of land in Bolivia from developers to protect a rare insect from extinction. Max himself can't finish a biology paper on the same subject. It takes his teacher, a Cambodian refugee "who knows a thing or two about extinction," Rothstein notes, to reach out to the teenager.

"At the center of the play is Max, a 15-year-old cellist. He is also a composer, but no one--not even himself--is aware of his extraordinary gift," Rothstein says.

The production is the regional premiere of Lewis's play, which earned the 2009 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics' Association New Play Award. The playwright used several initiatives to bridge science and theater as her starting point.

"Music steps in when words fail to capture an emotion, an idea, the power of the human spirit. We have approached the entire production as though it were a symphony; a visual, emotional and visceral composition with the final movement culminating in Max's 'Song of Extinction.'"