Happily ever after ends on the honeymoon in "Hundred Days."
This unconventional musical, part indie rock opera, part tragic romance, will take your breath away from the first pounding chorus to the last plaintiff wail. Astutely directed by Anne Kauffman with a deft book by Kate E. Ryan, "Hundred Days" is ablaze with the ephemeral nature of life and love.
While the two-hour rock concert-cum-play may have its flaws, it's still one of the most electric fusions of music and theater in recent memory. If you don't fall a little in love with the Bengsons, the young couple at the core of this folk-rock musical, something may be wrong with your heart.
An heir to the kick-ass tradition of "Passing Strange" and "Striking 12," this raucous world premiere sets fire to the stage through April 6 at Z Space in a co-production with Encore Theatre Company and Piece by Piece. The score is an alt-rock gem that will linger in your head long after the curtain falls.
Abigail and Shaun Bengson fell for each other immediately, and that attraction spun their lives in a whole new direction. The intensity of that experience is what inspired this gem of a story in which a couple learns their days are numbered.
Sunny Sarah (played by Abigail) and sheepish Will (played by Shaun) meet at a party in Queens, bond over the desire to see the salt flats of the West and find themselves married three weeks later.
Their courtship is so fast and hard that Will's best friend Max (a magnetic Jo Lampert) feels slighted, and Sarah's knitting circle has to work their fingers to the bone to be on time with the wedding gown. The unadulterated bliss of that romance is shattered when Will learns he has a terminal condition that will lay waste to his body in less than a "Hundred Days."
Stung by the tragedy of knowing how little time they have left, the newlyweds cocoon themselves in their house and try to pack a lifetime into a few months. Abigail radiates the electricity of first love in the infectious title song, and she summons up the despair of letting go in the haunting "Three Legged Dog." Guitar-playing Shaun suffuses Will with warmth and passion as he goes from the narcissism of youth to the powerlessness of facing death.
Kauffman makes the transcendent themes of the play manifest in the staging. The show starts out as a rock concert, but shifts into a more theatrical realm as the narrative deepens. Rivers of salt pouring from the ceiling represent time's shifting sands as well as the salt-flats adventure that will never unfold. Shadows dance in windows of the rear wall as the outside world tries to intrude on their fleeting nirvana.
There are some missteps. It's confusing that other actors (Reggie D. White and Amy Lizardo) sometimes play Sarah and Will while Abigail and Shaun concentrate on the white-hot vocals. While the ensemble shifts through numerous roles with ingenious efficiency, there is no point in pulling our attention away from the stars of this show, whose personal chemistry is key to the intensity. The secondary actors feel tacked on to an otherwise intimate tale.
It's also hard to figure out exactly when the story is set. References are made to the 1940s, and there's a gramophone at the ready, but little else about that time period seems to inform the story. Finally, the ending, while explosive, feels a little rushed.
But these are all quibbles in terms of the tearful euphoria the musical sparks. The raw spontaneity of the music and the performances more than makes up for its failings. "Hundred Days" makes every minute count.
Concept and music by Abigail and Shaun Bengson
Through: April 6
Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco
Running time: two hours, one intermission
Tickets: $10-$70, 866-811-4111, www.zspace.org