Pittsboro singer/songwriter Tom Maxwell’s toe-tapping tunes for Songs & Scenes from “Sam/Sara” are better than Chapel Hill playwright John Justice’s skeletal scenes for this new musical, which is still very much a “work in progress,” despite the current showcase premiere performed by The Open Eye Crew July 7-9 at Manbites Dog Theater as part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices series. The main problem is, the script tells us a whole lot about Sara (the wonderfully expressive Meredith Sause) but hardly anything about Sam (the comparatively less charismatic Geoff Zeger) and almost nothing about all the rest of the rustic characters with whom Sam and Sara interact.

Set in 1910 in a remote mountainous section of the southeastern United States, Sam/Sara is another story of star-crossed teenaged lovers. This time, both of them are what we might call hillbillies.

Sara has two suitors: Sam and Ben (Torrey Lawrence), both boyish and very full of themselves. One hot summer night, while this bucolic threesome is talking smack and slapping skeeters, Sara suggests that if both boys want her so doggone bad then, perhaps, they should fight a winner-take-all duel for her affections. (Sara really loves Sam, but just cannot resist being wanted by TWO men at the same time.)

Sam and Ben, who are best friends as well as romantic rivals, decide to play a cruel joke on Sara by pretending that Sam has stabbed Ben to death in their “duel.” But the joke backfires on them tragically when a distraught and conscience-stricken Sara unexpectedly grabs Sam’s knife and stabs herself to death.

By some (unexplained) stroke of mountain “magic,” Sara returns to the nearby mountains as a specter, doomed to walk the footpaths in penance until she performs enough good deeds in death to counter-balance all her thoughtless and unkind acts in life. Every time Sara succeeds in redirecting some poor lost soul from the pathway toward certain and total destruction, she may transfer one gold coin from one Styrofoam container to another on some kind of altar. When the first container is empty and the second container is full, her time in limbo (or wherever she is) will be up.

So, Sara snatches a suicidal country boy named Mo Rose (Audrey Christopher) Mo Rose is a play on “morose,” get it from the depths of despond; and she tries to save a poor stripper/prostitute named Agony Delight (Christopher), who is abused and brutally exploited by her boyfriend/manager Buster Goode (Lawrence). Sara even confronts her own aging Ma and ailing Pa (Christopher and Lawrence) and tries to ease their troubled minds.

Eventually, Sam pops up again and comes face to face with the Sara in ghostly form. But playwright John Justice has left Sam such a sketchy character that it is hard to care whether or not they can find happiness together. What ordeal(s) has Sam been though? How has he suffered? The audience never knows.

There is little that passes for character development in Sam/Sara. Justice paints with such a broad brush that the characters, even Sara, remain two-dimensional, one-note caricatures at best and their miserable plights are exploited for cheap laughs.

Tom Maxwell’s songs, which have a folksy feel and Indie-rock instrumentation, are the best part of Sam/Sara. The cast’s performances of them and the theater’s acoustics sometimes make the lyrics a little hard to hear; but what can be heard is entertaining enough.

All four actors make the most of their slim dramatic pickings; marvelous musicians Dana Kletter (keyboards, rhythm guitar) and Jon Shain (lead guitar, electric bass) provide incisive instrumentals, mournful vocals, and some nice additional music; and scenic and lighting designer Jordan Eccles and costume designer Meredith Sause do their best to create the right ambience on a shoestring budget.

Characters thinner than skim milk and a quirky and not completely comprehendible plot not to mention an incomprehensible cosmology keep Sam/Sara from being all that it can be; and director David Beckmann, who could do a lot to elucidate the playwright’s points, fails to provide the clarity and the continuity to make this 60-minute show completely satisfying for the audience.

The Open Eye Crew presents Songs & Scenes from “Sam/Sara” Friday-Saturday, July 8-9, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $12. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/..

PREVIEW: The Open Eye Crew: Songs & Scenes from “Sam/Sara” Is A Story of Star-Crossed Lovers

by Robert W. McDowell

The Open Eye Crew will present Songs & Scenes from “Sam/Sara” an 80-minute showcase premiere of a new musical with songs by Tom Maxwell and story by John Justice, July 7-9 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC. Pittsboro singer/songwriter Tom Maxwell is a former member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, for whom he wrote the hits “Hell” and “Put a Lid on It.” John Justice is a Chapel Hill playwright who wrote Two Sams for Shakespeare & Originals and adapted of Clyde Edgerton’s novels Raney and Walking Across Egypt for the stage.

David Beckmann, who staged Pippin and other musicals for Duke University’s Hoof ‘n’ Horn student-run musical-theater group, will direct the show. The stellar cast includes Meredith Sause, Torrey Lawrence, Audrey Christian, and Geoff Zeger. The show will also feature music and vocals by Jon Shain and Dana Kletter, who both contributed some additional music.

Playwright John Justice says, “The original spark of interest came when I went to hear Tom Maxwell perform in Raleigh about 18 months ago. Although Tom was a mainstay of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, I’d not heard him before.

“I liked his whole set,” Justice recalls, “and loved a song he did called ‘Four Mountains.’ It’s a song in three movements [it] builds in intensity for the first two movements as the singer sings of birth, aging, suffering, and death, then makes a beautiful movement into a section in which the singer asks, ‘Please please please/keep my mind open. Please please please/help me be mindful. Please please please/cure my desire.’”

Justice claims, “‘Four Mountains’ was so beautiful in a Zen/pop way, and it struck me as very, very theatrical. So, I called Tom and told him I was a local playwright and a new-minted fan and asked if he’d like to chat over coffee. We did, and we talked about his music and some ideas we had about the question of why are we (humans) so bound to our desires? Why are we so often dissatisfied when we finally get what (we thought) we wanted? Why is so hard to shuck off the cravings, the appetites that we know in our heart of hearts aren’t worth the price we pay for satisfying them?”

Sam/Sara is the musical play that grew out of these conversations,” Justice explains. “I listened to a lot more of Tom’s wonderful songs; we talked; I did a draft of two and revised them with his input.”

Justice notes, “On July 7-9 thanks to Manbites Dog Theater and its Other Voices series we will give a showcase premiere of this musical as it exists now. As playwright, I’ve fashioned a simple story whose actions are, like the songs, concerned with the cycle of ‘samsara’ as illustrated by two young lovers, Sam and Sara. They are young and in love and, through a joke that goes tragically awry, Sara dies.

“She kills herself,” Justice says, “and is whisked up the remote mountain by helpful spirits. There, alone, she does penance for her unkindness; when the penance is complete, she will go to another (higher?) state of being. Sam, meanwhile, is left alone and with a life to fill. He hears story of a mountain healer or witch or magician and believes it is Sara. He searches for her by day and does music at night in a low frontier drinking shack.”

Justice adds, “The story line is how Sam never gives up the search…. [He] does indeed find Sara [and] is confronted with his own moment of transformation, as she was.

“Along the way,” Justice says, “their story winds in and out of the stories of others: Sara’s mother and father, who believe she has cursed their farm; a murderous juke-joint owner, Buster Goode, and his enslaved stripper, Agony Delight; [and] a suicidal pilgrim named Mo Rose, who asks Sara to help him exit the world.”

John Justice says, “Sets, lights, and costumes are very simple. We’re asking the audience for the gift of their attention, our belief being that we’re putting a world of story and music on stage that is worth about 80 minutes of time. We hope the show roams high and low, putting forth some scenes that reach deep for the ideas I’ve mentioned and that (sometimes simultaneously) mine the vein of comedy that is always right up against the world’s load of sorrow.

“A big challenge,” Justice says, “is … trying to tell a story on stage that is neither 100 percent tragedy, nor total comedy, but rather one in which the two live side by side …. [It] is keeping it clear enough that it doesn’t evolve into something tepid or mushy. We’ll find out this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday how well we’ve met this challenge.”

The Open Eye Crew presents Songs & Scenes from “Sam/Sara” Thursday-Saturday, July 7-9, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $12. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.