At surface level, it might be hard to see what photos of an elk with arms, a man covered in balloons, or a creepy doll (a very, very creepy doll) all have in common.
It’s not a trick question. Really, the aforementioned images don’t have anything in common, except that they were all created by the photographer Matthew Murphy and all feature in the musical “35MM,” an avant-garde, slightly abstract, and delightfully weird production first released by the composer and lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver in 2012.
It’s also — importantly — adult. As in, it includes themes of sexuality, obsession, domestic violence, and other mature topics that are probably better consumed by grown-ups. But staging adult productions, and engaging in all the conversations that might ensue, was one of the explicit goals of director Elizabeth Lucas when she started her new local theatre company, Free Range Humans.
Now in its second season, the ensemble has a history of unconventional pieces. Its inaugural production was “Murder Ballad,” a rock musical thriller with a perhaps expectedly grisly ending. In January, Lucas held a screening of “Clear Blue Tuesday,” an original movie musical — written by Lucas and her cast — set in the days after September 11.
Staging “35MM” was just another way to continue the trend. The Free Range Humans production debuts March 14 at McClintock Distilling in downtown Frederick, and Lucas is already expecting some strong feedback.
“It’s very funny and very dark,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say it’s not for everyone. But the show really digs deep into those messy, sloppy, obsessive feelings that most of us are afraid to say out loud. It really captures the angst of being a millennial.”
Part of that is the show’s immersive quality as a “musical exhibition,” Lucas added. While “35MM” is centered around a few broad themes, each of the musical’s 22 songs is largely tangential and inspired by one of Murphy’s surreal photographs. There’s a clear message there about framing and the growing relevance of shaping the narrative of our lives around a few photographs.
It can also lead to some very funny theatrical moments. Take “The Ballad of Sara Berry,” a rapid-fire rock song inspired by a octet of black-and-white yearbook photos. The ballad goes deep into the mind of a wannabe prom queen who would do anything to win the crown — about as much as Lucas could say without spoiling the ending.
Typically, the musical is staged with fairly minimal set design, putting more of an emphasis on the actors carrying the performance. That makes vocal performance a key part of the play and a particular challenge, Lucas said, based on the dense harmonies and broad range in the composition.
Luckily, the actors will also have the support of a four-piece backing band assembled by musical director Marci Shegogue. It’s another way for Lucas to distinguish a show that’s difficult for its cast, but also, to some extent, its audience.
“It’s a hard one to sell because it’s a hard one to describe,” Lucas said. “But I think this is the time for it. I could do ‘Mama Mia!’ and I know people would come, but I also don’t think it would feel relevant in the same way.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters