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Jason Slavick
Jason Slavick, whose production explores the Seven Deadly Sins. (The Boston Globe)

Temptation begets inspiration

Joe Jackson's album 'Heaven & Hell' is basis for a new musical production

On a recent Thursday night, a gang of illegal Mexican immigrants was hauling a soiled, naked sloth across a rehearsal room in the basement at Boston Conservatory. The sloth -- which closely resembled a slender (and fully-clothed) theater student but would later expand, with the help of latex, to a grotesque 6-by-6-foot monster -- passed wind. Out popped two frat boys singing about a Bud and a slice. Downstage, a group of demons watched TV. Still on the shop bench: a 50-gallon Big Gulp that will nearly break the backs of its lurching, slurping devotees.

And then there's Lust, Gluttony, Anger, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.

The world premiere of "Heaven & Hell -- The Fantastical Temptation of the 7 Deadly Sins" opens Wednesday for a five-night run at the Boston Conservatory Theater. But the seeds for this musical morality tale were planted seven years ago, when writer and director Jason Slavick -- whose résumé includes plenty of Shakespeare but no large-scale musicals -- heard Joe Jackson's 1997 concept album "Heaven & Hell" at a friend's house. He was blown away by the music, a genre-defying mix of contemporary classical, heady pop, and abrasive rock. And he was riveted by the social critique.

"I could see these characters," says Slavick, who has created a sung-through production using Jackson's lyrics as inspiration for a dreamlike narrative journey set in a meat factory, the pages of a fashion magazine, and the Garden of Eden, among other locales. Costumes are elaborate. Dance is integral. The process was as impressionistic as the seething mound of actors that play a single character called The Black Market.

"I would sit with my iPod and my notebook on my porch or in a cafe and listen to the same song over and over again for four hours and ask myself, 'Who is singing?' " Slavick recalls. " 'Oh, of course, that's a mother in a war zone trying to escape. Then a scene starts to develop around her. Or there's a sound, a repeating rhythm. What is this? It's like those jeeps that arrive in a town before the army, telling everyone to get out. I could see things happening as I listened. It was begging to be embodied physically. It was imperative for me to turn it into a stage production."

Jackson is an eclectic British musician best known for his early-career radio hits "Is She Really Going Out With Him?," "Steppin' Out," and "Breaking Us In Two." But in the quarter century since, Jackson has also explored reggae, salsa, swing, film scoring, and serious instrumental music. The roster of guest artists on "Heaven & Hell" hints at the album's stylistic breadth -- among them violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg , vocalist Dawn Upshaw, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, art-pop chanteuse Jane Siberry, and Crash Test Dummies frontman Brad Roberts. Jackson offered his blessing, but not his input, to the Boston Conservatory production, which features three grad students among the otherwise undergraduate cast.

"It's flattering if someone wants to use my music for anything, but I didn't really want to be involved. My head is in other things," Jackson says by phone from New York. "It's like having a child and at some point it goes out into the world and who knows what adventures it can have?"

That left Slavick to his own imaginative devices, which happen to be right in tune with Jackson's ambitious fusion of pointed ideology and twisted humor. A former company member and frequent director at Boston Theatre Works who was at the helm of last season's critically-acclaimed "Othello," Slavick notes that social relevance is "what turns me on. I want to engage the audience in a dialogue about the world we share. I don't really buy into the quote , unquote Sins idea. But it's neat, it's clean, and it's familiar to people. So it's a great framework for telescoping the moral development of a human being down into a one-act musical."

Neil Donohoe -- director of Boston Conservatory's Theater division and a Jackson fan from the '80s -- agreed. "I was excited about this before I even heard the album," Donohoe says. "Jason is a smart guy, a creative man, and when he told me that he wanted to workshop it in order to develop the piece, I said absolutely."

During last fall's workshops, Slavick fine-tuned his vision: transposing the sins onto a larger canvas that would encompass the human condition, in particular contemporary morality. His challenge was to conceive characters, action, and arc working only with the lyrics to seven songs. Slavick had decided at the outset that he wouldn't add a word to Jackson's -- there is no book, only lyrics -- and Jackson's are conveniently filled with vivid imagery and strong personalities. Slavick says that working within those confines was the key to bringing structure, rigor, and ultimately a successful end result, to the creative process.

"The album is so compelling, so grand, my job is to interpret the music as faithfully as I can," says Slavick, who notes that Jackson's silence has made him feel a bit as if he's collaborating with a dead author. He combed published interviews and read Jackson's 1999 memoir, "A Cure for Gravity," cherry - picking themes and insights.

"It started out as 'Alice in Wonderland' meets 'Dante's Inferno' and in a sense that's still true," says Slavick, who believes the show has great commercial potential and plans to use the Boston Conservatory run as a springboard to a professional production. "The sins are tests and [the show's protagonist] J has to pass each one of these tests. What's interesting to me is where we succeed and where we fail. Lust isn't a sin in itself. Where and when is it a sin? When lust drives toward the objectification and devouring of a human being then lust is a problem. Gluttony? Yeah, so what. But gluttony used by the food industry as a tool for capitalism, that's interesting."

Jackson would no doubt concur. Unfortunately the musician -- who is knee-deep in a new album and his own musical theater project about the life of author Bram Stoker -- won't be able to attend a performance. "But I'm delighted it's happening," the musician says. "It's a timeless theme, don't you think?"

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. For more on music visit boston.com/ae/music/blog.

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