The New York-based acting troupe known as The Civilians has musically documented subjects as disparate as lost items both big and small (Gone Missing), the rise of evangelical churches in Colorado (This Beautiful City), and Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards mega-development (In the Footprint). But the subject of their new musical, The Great Immensity, echoes its purposefully redundant title: the global ramifications of climate change. (The show runs through May 1 at the Public Theater.) Much like the starving, survivalist polar bears that occupy a considerable amount of story time, though, the production seems to bite off more than it can chew.
Eschewing The Civilians’ typical style of docu-theater in favor of a more straightforward narrative approach (with an impressive scenic design consisting of versatile cargo backdrops), Immensity slims the topic down to a mystery. An Emmy-winning Shark Week filmmaker (Lombardi’s Chris Sullivan) begins exploring the possibility of environmental activism via a group known as Earth Ambassadors, a collective devoted to underground means of exposing awareness. His frazzled wife (Rebecca Hart) is then forced to retrace his steps all over the globe, to understand how a successful TV figure suddenly felt compelled to go off the grid. In characteristic Civilians form, writer-director Steve Cosson and composer Michael Friedman craft folk-rock story-songs around the narrative, though their work here pales compared to their previous efforts.
The Civilians’ signature tongue-in-cheek style doesn’t always gibe with the momentous topic. Sure, Cindy Cheung elicits some giggles as an overzealous tour guide who frantically and comically explains nature’s impending horrors. But the lighthearted moments sometimes come off as callous (singing polar bears, mocking-in-tone environmental group intros), thus diluting the attention that should be paid to the intensely sobering information doled out over the course of the show’s protracted two-plus hours. C+