March 20, 2009.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Peter Rothstein's dilemma had nothing to do with art. Sitting down to talk about Theatre Latté Da's "Passage of Dreams," he admitted that marketing three one-act musicals is tough business.

"Part of the trick is finding a unifying theme," he said candidly. "Or are they three totally distinct works?"

Time will tell on that score, as the triptych of new musicals opens tonight at the Southern Theatre with a cast that includes Simone Perrin, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Randy Schmeling and Janet Hansen. Latté Da is billing the program as "three aerial musicals." Rothstein is more circumspect in his assessment: The pieces mix aerial choreography, storytelling and theatrical fantasy. However, his enthusiasm is undimmed no matter how they are described.

"I really like them," he said.

"Passage of Dreams" takes its title from the first of the three pieces. It was one of several short works featured in 2002 in Latté Da's "New York Musical Shorts." At the time, Rothstein was producing in the Loring Playhouse and its 12-foot ceilings prevented him from fully exercising writer Katie Baldwin Eng's intentions that a character soar through the air in her dreams. Instead, the singer stood on a chair and looked out a window in 1930s Paris. The Southern allows for the flight of fantasy with aerialist Heather Haugen.

The second entry, "Bessie's Birthday," came from a visit Eng made to rural Wisconsin. It is about a woman who suffered a brain injury that stalled her development at age 6. When friends gather to celebrate her 30th birthday, they jump into a swimming pool.

"When everyone is underwater, it's the only time she feels simpatico with the others," Rothstein said.

Or, as Eng puts it, "She becomes another person when she's swimming."

The elusive third leg

Eng and composer Jeff Tang had done a third piece, and Rothstein helped get the package into the Playwrights' Center's development festival, PlayLabs 2007. Rothstein said he was particularly heartened by the response to "Bessie."

"People were very moved by it but they were unable to articulate why they were crying," he said. That told him the piece struck a deep chord.

For reasons fairly arcane, the third piece of the program was dropped and Eng and Tang began what she called an endless search for a replacement. The quest led to "Thirst," an absurdist tale set in a future without water. When the rain comes, members of a family have differing reactions -- both physically and symbolically. Eng said she wrote the piece and then put it on the shelf "because it sort of confused me.

"It's a strange piece, written from an unconscious place, and I was scared of it and not sure what it all meant," she said.

Rothstein nonetheless dove in and talked through it with Eng and Tang. The rain represented humanity and spirituality, Rothstein said. A son in the family sees it as a sexual awakening, the mother recalls memories of the days when water was plentiful, and the father gathers buckets to hoard the rain. It struck Rothstein as a sort of ritual with the mechanics of prayer and dance. Too, it called for aerialist work to represent the rain.

So there you have it: a Parisian fantasy, a contemporary Wisconsin birthday party and a futuristic "Waterless World."

"We weren't sure how we would thematically link them," Eng said.

But now she and Rothstein have been living with these pieces for a while and they each have found threads to pull them together.

"Each of these shift perspective," Rothstein said. "Flying in the first, underwater in the second, and with rain in the third."

Eng said she doesn't see an obvious link in the music or the individuals, but all three pieces involve "characters who are searching for a sacred space in their lives -- not religious so much, but they are trying to connect, and I hate to sound so New Agey, to the Earth and each other."

Marketing aside, Eng notes that it's rare to see new, short musical work that is not a calculated commercial prospect. Instead, these one-acts are just the product of "our wacky dreams."

There it is. Now that's a great slogan.