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Abrons Art Center, New York

The Wholehearted
2.0Reviewer's Rating

Set on an open boxing ring, The Wholehearted is a messy look at one woman’s rags-to-riches journey from talented athlete to professional boxer, her rise, fall, and comeback. The story centers on Dee Crosby, who left her true love, Carmen, for a Svengali who cultivates her, brutalizes her, and pays the price. This one-actor show, featuring the clearly kinetic and charismatic Suzi Holum, is an odd, jumbled piece interspersed with musical numbers that don’t quite fit into a drama – or perhaps this should be rightly billed as a musical.

The narrative hops forward and back in explaining the boxer’s story and her ascendency from poor girl from Bakersfield to millionaire wife and sports icon. Dee has left Carmen suddenly – while still in her teens – for the promise of fame, money, and expert training under the patronage of Charlie, who becomes her brutal husband. She creates a video valentine issuing an apology and professes her longing, love, and promise to return to her. She recalls their love affair, “all angles and edges”, and reveals the softness of her character under the fighter façade. Is Dee returning to Carmen knowing she is waiting there for her, or does Carmen represent a longing to return an idealized past? Is this a fantasy break in her psyche? This is never made clear. Dee also holds up a gun which will go off later, another formulaic note in the drama/musical.

Holum not only sings several numbers – she can belt it out – but she also assumes the character of her husband, who becomes increasingly violent and their relationship more contentious and antagonistic. That she can swing between characters illustrates the depth of Holum’s talents, but the transitions can be clunky and even confusing as she moves between personas.

The songs, written by James Sugg and Heather Christian, are beautifully composed and the lyrics well done. One song, performed in Charlie’s persona, verges on parody. Holum has great fun with the number but it is a Vegas-style humorous interlude that doesn’t mesh with the overall dramatic tone of the larger piece.

The use of TV screens above the ring are used to graft Holum’s solo boxing into match showing her opponent on the screen, a clever touch. The screens also aired the telling press interview – in which Dee recounts her final match with Charlie in their sprawling McMansion, where the gun seen earlier reemerges in a grisly finale. This visual accompaniment might have also been used to provide atmosphere in some of the quieter passages which desperately need flourishes to cinch up the transitional pauses.

The performance has with long stretches of awkward silences as Holum moves about the space that might have been heightened with audio or lighting to enhance dramatic effect.

Is boxing Dee’s true love? When she calls for Charlie as she’s losing an important match, is she honest about who she loves and needs? Where do the violence and aggression in her personality stem from? Holum has ferocious energy and can bring emotion and humor to the fantastic songs and the performance, but this reviewer overall found the piece to be lacking in cohesion and message.

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