Anhedonia is a condition that renders the sufferer unable to experience pleasure. In the rock musical Cages, which mixes live performance and holograms, film and animation, it’s also the name of a gray dystopian city where the aesthetic is very Tim-Burton-meets-German-Expressionism and any display of emotion is prohibited. Hidden in the shadows lurks composer Woolf, who sees in Madeline, his pixie-ish muse, the prospect of true love. Can music help them overcome their obstacles?
The biggest thing Cages faces is the very technology that acts as its selling point. The state-of-the-art holograms – an improvement on the days when Laurence Olivier’s floating head was projected onto the Dominion Theater stage for Time – will be indistinguishable from the live actors. But the disparity whenever Woolf (played in the flesh by CJ Baran) interacts with Madeline (Allison Harvard in virtual form) is all too obvious. No wonder the love story feels bloodless when it hinges on punch marks and corresponding sightlines, rather than old-school chemistry and rapport. It doesn’t help that the characters communicate via silent movie intertitles, with a narrator (Harwood Gordon, another hologram) speaking to himself.
Crowd scenes filmed showing ranks of the secret police with metal traffic cones on their heads (why?) only underscore the leanness of the eight-person in-person cast. Baran, who co-created Cages with Benjamin K Romans, is a songwriter rather than an actor, and it shows – he has none of the physical expressiveness that might have made Woolf more than a figure laborious. The most beautiful effect of the party has virtual raindrops splashing on a real umbrella.
The score, also by Baran and Romans, is often reminiscent of Heartbreak-era 808s and Kanye West: lots of doom synths, vocoder and introspection. Madeline’s chorus, Somebody’s Somebody, is a pale echo of Vanessa Williams’ Save the Best for Last, while a singing moon with a human face is reminiscent of The Mighty Boosh. The only authentic pop anthem (A Love Song) comes too late to salvage a programming-rich second act in which audiences will know exactly what it feels like to suffer from anhedonia.