‘Gone Missing’ runs at New York City Center through Thursday. 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org.
The New York theater community was rocked last year by the news that 41-year-old composer-lyricist Michael Friedman had died of complications from HIV/AIDS, bringing back painful memories of a time not so long ago when countless theater artists passed away under similar circumstances.
Over a short period, Friedman wrote a large number of pop-rock musicals and contributed original music for a variety of plays. His best-known musicals were those that played The Public Theater, including “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” (an emo-rock interpretation of the 19th century populist president, which briefly played Broadway), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (based on Shakespeare’s esoteric but youthful comedy) and “The Fortress of Solitude” (based on Jonathan Lethem’s coming-of-age novel).
Friedman also frequently collaborated with the Civilians, an experimental, “investigative” theater troupe known for its quirky, documentary-style shows on subjects such as the Evangelical Movement (“This Beautiful City”), climate change (“The Great Immensity”) and the physical redevelopment of Brooklyn (“In the Footprint”).
At the time of his death, Friedman had just completed his first season as the artistic director of the summertime Encores! Off-Center series at City Center, in which Off-Broadway musicals from the past received concert-style productions. In a statement, Friedman explained that the three Off-Broadway shows chosen for the 2017 season — Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” Maurice Sendak and Carole King’s “Really Rosie” and “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” — were intended to present “three very different visions of the American dream, and of what happens when people try to make their visions real.”
It comes as no surprise that one of Friedman’s works has been included in the 2018 Encores! Off-Center season as a tribute to him. I had originally assumed that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” (which is probably more politically relevant today than it was in 2009) would receive the slot. But instead, director Anne Kauffman and composer Jeanine Tesori (who are currently serving as interim co-artistic directors of the series) chose “Gone Missing,” an oddball 2001 revue laced with observational humor, peppy energy and shades of sadness, which Friedman wrote with the Civilians and probably qualifies as Friedman’s breakout work.
Directed by two-time Obie winner Ken Rus Schmoll, the physically spare, two-performance-only production (which runs about 80 minutes with no intermission) features an agile six-member cast, including performance artist Taylor Mac, Susan Blackwell and Deborah S. Craig.
In “Gone Missing,” bits and pieces of interviews with real-life New Yorkers about things that have gone missing — including everyday items (car keys), prized possessions (one of two Gucci pumps), places (Atlantis) and body parts (don’t ask) — are turned into monologues, scenes and songs. This leads the way to a meditation on loss and its accompanying emotions.
With that in mind, the Off-Center production of “Gone Missing” serves as an opportunity to reflect upon Friedman’s untimely passing. The meditative final song, “Stars,” contains the line “So when I leave you, you’ll know, I’m just a shadow, an echo. You never possessed me. Never possessed me.” When the song was performed at Wednesday night’s performance, one could hear a few audience members weeping.