- Conceived by Michael J. Bobbitt
- Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
- Musical arrangements by John L. Cornelius II
- Directed and Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt
- Produced by MetroStage
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
PBS has its seemingly ubiquitous “Three Tenors.” Musical theatre fans have the three Stephens (Flaherty, Sondheim and Schwartz) who have been delighting theatre and film audiences with their music for decades. While Schwartz personally has not brought home the brass ring, the Tony Award, for his music, he’s racked up an impressive array of national and regional awards, achieved astounding commercial success, and remains a far more popular favorite among many musical theatre buffs and, undoubtedly, the general public for his pleasing, highly-memorable melodies and intelligent lyrics. I’m still shaking my head with wonder that the witty trifle, Avenue Q, could overshadow Schwartz’s Wicked among American Theatre Wing voters.
Having access to the treasure chest of Stephen Schwartz songs (from The Baker’s Wife, Children of Eden, Godspell, Pippin, Rags, Wicked, Working, and a slew of animated musical films for Disney) to build this world premiere revue must have been delightful and daunting: so many gems, so little time.
The Stephen Schwartz Project company (a cast of nine young, gifted performers) bookends the Project with rousing renditions of “The Spark of Creation” from Children of Eden. The road traveled (yellow brick and otherwise) between the opening and the closing reprise unfortunately is bumpy and pothole-ridden in many places along the way. I respect the creative aspirations and very evident hard work, but too much of The Project made me cringe. Based on earlier MetroStage productions, I anticipated returning to this show again and again and dragging friends and co-workers along with me. While there are positive elements of the show to report about this production, let me brush by the damage first.
Unfortunately, two major flaws, artistic and technical, will prevent me from returning: (1) artistically, some of the song arrangements are so off-kilter that they distort the inherent beauty (simplicity and purity) of the material; and (2) technically, for such a small performance space, the sound volume is oppressive, very often making lyrics unintelligible at a minimum, and risking ear drum damage at the extreme. And I do not use the word “oppressive” flippantly — a decibel higher and ears might bleed.
To those who do not know the Schwartz catalog, I fear they will come away from this show with a quite skewed appreciation of his work. For those, like me, who are Schwartz fans, it’s a roll of the dice whether the arrangements will be considered innovative or excruciating. Some people like the jazz riffs on Sondheim (e.g, “Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim” or “Sondheim… in Jazz”); some are nonplussed. I’m often enough in the latter category.
Different isn’t necessarily good. Here, for example, Florrie Bagel shines in “Since I Gave My Heart Away,” albeit against a tidal wave of over-amplification, but stumbles through “West End Avenue” (a renowned theatrical audition song) by virtue of an inherently word-mangling musical arrangement. Roughly half of the smart lyrics are unintelligible. It’s neither hip nor fresh. Amp-ing down the song would be an improvement, but would still not cure an arrangement which requires brusquely spitting out verses in drive-by staccato bullet asides. Another worst case example: the re-conceptualization of “Lion Tamer” is agonizing. The exquisite Felicia Curry is forced to gyrate and growl through a truly warped distortion of this sweet, romantic lament. Think Gypsy‘s Tessi Tura performing Gounod’s “Ave Maria.” The death of gimmick. For some other songs, the harmonies border on barbershop blandness.
Fortunately, this cast is strong enough to often rise above the limitations of the production. Felicia Curry is featured frequently enough to lift any audiences’ spirits, especially in the rousing “Ain’t It Good?” from Children of Eden. As another example, Jobari Parker-Namdar delivers a very sweet rendition of “Cold Enough to Snow” that is heartwarming enough to melt a glacier. Kerry Deitrick sings beautifully through the challenging ballad, “Meadowlark,” even though the sweet sorrow of the song seems to be missing from this arrangement. Amber Iman Moorer is Miss Firecracker – sass, pizzazz, and a take-notice set of pipes. Her rich voice soars on the solo “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas) and she’s a standout in most ensemble numbers. For folks who have yet to see Wicked, Priscilla Cuellar takes an accomplished dive off one of the highest boards in musical theatre, “Defying Gravity.” It’s an octave-soaring, throat-wrenching anthem which she carries off against all odds. She also claims attention in ensemble numbers.
Overall, the show is a nicely cast but strangely-conceived musical production. Two days later when the ringing in my ears subsided, I could only wonder “What was that?”
- Running time: 1:20 with no intermission
- When: April 10 – May 25. Thurs – Sat at 8 pm, Sunday at 7 pm, matinees Sat and Sun at 3 pm
- Where: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St, Alexandria VA
- Tickets: $35 – $40
- Info: Order online or call 800-494-TIXS