MURRAY – Typically, you wouldn’t think of a women’s homeless shelter as the subject of musical theater. However, local playwright and lyricist Brittany Bullen (music by Brittany Bullen and Newell Bullen) didn’t let this topic strike any fear!

With an awesome score (Brava to the live orchestra) and some meaty material, Shelter has a beautiful message of hope and a hard-hitting story about the strength of women.    With many, not so subtle, messages of growing from our trials and serving helps the sever as much as the recipient, the show works to inspire the audience to be part of a solution.

Jeanine, played by Jessica Pearce, is a support counselor at an inner-city women’s homeless shelter.  As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the colorful characters and the stories of how these women landed at the bottom of the heap.  From prostitutes, alcoholics, survivors of violence and victims of situations out of their control, we come to see that everyone has a story, even Joshua (Matthew Wade Johnson), the ever-optimistic love interest of Jeanine.

With unexpected twists, a crazy chef (Miki Smith was hilarious) and a contemporary rock music score, Shelter brings homeless issues center stage and captures the heart of a theatrical experience created to make a difference.

Pearce and Johnson as the leads were strong and their chemistry was believable.  Their scenes were enjoyable, felt flushed out and well developed.

The rest of the actors were good, I enjoyed Wendy F. Tua’ One and Isabele Meadows the most because I they were the closest representation of women you may find in a shelter.   The set (Robin Bullen) was beautiful and the costumes were diverse and put together well.   The direction (Brighton Sloan) and use of  space was marvelous.

And now, a few constructive suggestions for those involved in the production. I understand the desire to keep the show family friendly but I didn’t buy into the homeless women.  Yes, some of them can be soft but others need to be much harder. These women live on the inner-city streets. For starters, they are likely to use stronger language. The fight scene at the end showed a glimpse of authenticity but overall, the shying away from the harshness of the streets hurt the character development.

I loved the score and the live orchestra. It was powerful, clean and perfect for the show.  However, the audio system was awful. There is nothing worse than being caught up in a moment and being jolted back to reality again and again by something not working. There is no quicker way to  remind someone that they are watching actors and not part of a magical experience, than lights being turned on at the wrong time, and mics not working.

Finally, I would have loved the women’s stories to be flushed out. I wanted more, which is good because I cared enough to be interested in their lives.  Perhaps a slimmed down story for Joshua and Jeanine (as much as I loved them) and less group songs would be a place to start.  The group music was wonderful and it tapped into the plight of homeless women in general.  But, not until Gloria’s (Brittany Bullen) song towards the end, did I really care about the individual.  Making me care about the person more than their circumstance is what will drive me to want to make a difference.

From the authors note in the program “there’s always more work to be done” – I’d agree.  However, it’s a beautiful show with some amazing music. I’ll buy the CD.  Completely written, acted and directed by local talent and proceeds that support local homeless– this show should be seen and supported by our community. Overall, you will be amazed at the talent we have in this city!

Shelter: A New Musical is running through May 28th at the Murray Theater at 4959 South State.  Tickets are  $15 (all proceeds go to charity) and can be purchased here.