Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill is one part light opera, one part jazz suite and one part video-augmented drama — with a central story that might be described as "The Iceman Cometh" with an old-school bohemian twist. It's an interesting conceit and one that works well — although a Dramamine vendor might have done brisk business during some of the more abrupt shifts in tone and media.
Elvis Costello, the rumpled, fedora-sporting narrator of the piece, provided a smartly written, briskly performed setup in the form of the three-part "Fire Suite," which made the most of his distinctive vocal quaver. His somewhat arch delivery, however, wasn't nearly as neat a fit for the ambiance as the arm-around-the-shoulder scatting of Nancy King, whose take on "Barstool Paradise" percolated with a beautiful-loser giddiness.
Nathanson's score, while somewhat uneven, was spot-on in its evocation of the barfly experience, rife with chattering brass interplay and woozy, seesawing melody lines that call to mind liquor-fueled debates and hazy afternoon benders.
John Jesrun's video work — which ran throughout the show — furthered the storyline elliptically during the instrumental passages, employing both collage work and silent footage of Deborah Harry in the role of matriarchal barmaid.
When coaxed to the stage of the mythical Keaton's, Harry's frowzy character — bar rag over her shoulder, beer-can curls hanging loose — exuded both sensuality and desperation in the smoky, Astrud Gilberto-styled "Imitation of a Kiss." That song drew a rousing cheer from the crowd, as did "Lost," a disarming trifle sung shyly but movingly by Juan de Jesus Coco.
The open-endedness of Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill — in the end, we're left hanging as to the establishment's fate, the guilt of the arsonist (fleetingly portrayed by former Psychedelic Furs front man Richard Butler) and several other points — is both intriguing and maddening.
But rather than convey a sense of unfinished business, Nathanson and company clearly communicate the sense that audience members may be trusted to make their own decisions with regard to those loose ends.