Musical Theatre Nerd Alert Goes Live!

Hey, nerds.  It has been too long.  Seriously.  Too.  Long.

Though the road to H-E-double-hockey-sticks is paved with good excuses, here are mine:  I was finishing the first year of grad school, revising my new musical, and doing two shows.  It kicked my A-double-snakes.  Sorry for the hiatus, but I do have some fun things to show you over the coming months.

In a previous post, I shared a number of photos of the MFAs creating a new web series called Musical Theatre Nerd Alert.  This series is now live, and we will be releasing new webisodes throughout the summer.  These cheeky little vids are crammed with facts about your favorite musical theatre creators along with a few–maybe more than a few–jokes.  We start with Jessica nerding out over Jerome Kern, the “Father of American Musical Theatre.”  Check it out and share it with all the nerds you know!

UP NEXT:  Episode 2–Liv on Irving Berlin

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Something’s Coming: Part 7

This ends–for a little while–the story of the journey towards choosing SDSU.  A year ago last week, I was auditioning in San Diego, and a year ago this week, I was being offered a position in the 2016 MFA class.  Wild, right?   So, here are a few final journal entries that retell a small part of my process.  Sharing it has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past year, consider how I make decisions, and revel in those who have helped me along the way.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, if someone out there in cyberspace is also considering a big change, hopefully reading about my journey has showed him or her that he or she is not alone.  

March 2014--The SDSU campus on a cloudy spring audition day.  Little did I know I'd be there every day one year later.

March 2014–The SDSU campus on a cloudy spring audition day. Little did I know I’d be there every day one year later.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wow.  Having a little freakout.  No, not freakout…just struck with reality that all of this might actually happen.  Lots of thoughts, no order.  Here goes:

I kicked off the singing/acting auditions today at SDSU.  I nailed it.  Was ready.  In the zone.  Felt amazing.

The people have been really nice so far.

Saw Pal Joey last night.  Impressed with some individual performers, but all together not a whiz-bang show.

Still amazed at all of the vegetation that in Illinois would be considered “houseplants” and here is just plunked in the ground.

Strolling the campus:  gorgeous.

They are dedicating a new student union this week–which is where I’m writing–which is also gorgeous.  Everything is buzzing.  It feels good.

This is a bigger school than I imagined.  This is way bigger than Lawrence.

People actually ride skateboards here.  Like to go places!

How am I going to pay for this?

As much as I have been dreading the question “What do I do if I don’t get in to this school?” for some reason the prospect of uprooting and moving to San Diego for two years suddenly feels scary as well  I would probably be skeptical if it didn’t  give me butterflies, though.

If there’s times, Jared is going to take me to their new house in Escondido.  I think I still want to live with them.  I wonder if they feel the same.  It is a stressful time for them right now, too.

I should learn Spanish if I come here.  That would be fun.

As I’m walking around, I am wishing loved ones were here so I could show this to them.  I think that is a good sign.

And here are a few excerpts from writing on the plane home the following day:

Yesterday’s audition was exceptional.  The whole day simply felt good.  After my individual audition and my own stroll around the campus, I returned to the Musical Theatre Archive for the “group interview.”  This was a time for all of the candidates to sit and hear a little more about the program.  Everything they related resonated with me.  Paula Kalustian–the MFA director–has had a long career as both artist and educator and she–like me–said that they have always grown together.  She’s not been able to let one or the other go, and so the program is also geared towards that.

The individual interviews came after that, and once again, I started.  It was at this meeting that I was able to convey how much it seemed like the philosophy of the program gelled with my own.  Paula expressed the same.  She asked about my professional goals.  I said I wanted to “kick it up a notch.”  We talked St. Louis theatre; she had done some work at Webster.  She asked about my dream roles and about my type.  I said that as I’m about to turn 34, I would like to play Bobby in Company.  She said she has directed it four times, looked straight at me, and nodded, “Yeah.”

In summary, I felt a real click with these people.  I think this could really happen.  And…I should know in a week.  How crazy is that?!

I feel a sense of peace in that it is now out of my hands.  I have done everything I can.  Now we wait.

On March 7, 2014, I was auditioning for the  MFA Musical Theatre program at SDSU.  On March 7, 2015, I was receiving the President's Award for the Arts at the Student Research Symposium.

On March 7, 2014, I was auditioning for the MFA Musical Theatre program at SDSU. On March 7, 2015, I was receiving the President’s Award for the Arts at the Student Research Symposium.

‘Bright Star’ Shines at Old Globe

San Diego Premieres Steve Martin’s New Musical

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In his program note, Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein calls Bright Star a “great yarn with a heart as big as a mountain and a soul as deep as the sea.”  A “yarn” proves to be an apt description for this show, because the characters in this completely new bluegrass musical weave their story in a lovely, homespun way.  The creators set about knitting that story using the Broadway formula, but—doing so without customary Broadway-style flash—the audience discovers they have invested in the story without knowing they have fallen for the usual tricks.  After an hour of this knitting, the feeling when the houselights come up for intermission is as if the audience discovered they were suddenly wearing sweaters they hadn’t been donning at the top of the show.

Watching this bit of handiwork on stage is a treat.  The work is the Old Globe’s fifth dramatic collaboration with funny man, actor, playwright, banjoist, songwriter Steve Martin over the last two decades, and the theatre has been involved with Bright Star for the past two years.  The piece underwent the workshop process in February and March in New York; now, in October, it receives a full and proper stage treatment.

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As for the show itself, the story opens on a young veteran making his way home to North Carolina immediately following World War II.  A.J. Shively brings an exuberance to the character of the young soldier, Billy Cane.  At the outset, Billy appears to be the main protagonist; he sets out to become a writer upon his return to civilian life.  His storyline, however, is eclipsed quickly by that of Alice Murphy, his editor.  Throughout the show, the story jumps like a handy game of hopscotch between Miss Murphy in 1945 and her younger self in 1923.  We enjoy Billy’s story arc, but we actually invest in Miss Murphy’s.  Carmen Cusack shines bright as a…well, er—star—in the role of Alice Murphy.  Aside from the expected challenges of portraying the same character 22 years apart in back-to-back scenes—which she accomplishes seamlessly—her voice is particularly suited for delivering both the folksy joy as well as the aching melancholy that the bluegrass score demands at different times.

One such moment of aching melancholy is the second act number “I Had a Vision.”  Though the score overall is quite tuneful, this number—shared by Miss Cusack and Wayne Alan Wilcox who plays Alice Murphy’s teenage flame, Jimmy Ray Dobbs—is the most poignant song in the show.  For anyone in their mid-thirties to mid-forties whose present life is different than their twenty-year old self had planned, this song is especially heart-breaking.  By this point in Act II, that same audience who realized they were wearing sweaters look down to discover that somehow the cast has also sewn on buttons and has closed the garment around them.

The garment is plenty comfortable.  Steve Martin—as composer and book writer this time—teams with lyricist Edie Brickell to fashion a bluegrass score that is at times straight up Appalachian hoedown (“Whaddya Say, Jimmy Ray” and “Another Round”) and at other times more of a show tune sensibility (“A Man’s Gotta Do” and the aforementioned “I Had a Vision”).  The cast generally balances bluegrass and Broadway quite well, aided greatly by the orchestra that includes banjo (of course), guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  While avid musical theatre ears might harken to shows like Smoke on the Mountain, the instrumentation doesn’t seem out of place for a casual theatre-goer who has a Pandora playlist that includes Mumford & Sons.  Efforts to resist toe-tapping are worthless.

Putting the orchestra in the frame of a house, director Walter Bobbie involves the musicians in a charming way without being too gimmicky.  As scenes shift, the actors wheel that shack around the stage like Dorothy’s house.  The audience never questions the band’s onstage presence; they are totally at home in the thick of the action.  On the subject of scenery and staging, Bobbie employs the kind of devices that leave the majority of the work to the imagination.  With this kind of Our Town-esque responsibility, the director charges the actors to transform chairs and crates into a train in one moment and a star-lit glen in another.  The sensibility is a bit more Peter and the Starcatcher than Our Town, but it is of the same lineage.  In Bright Star, the production value always bows in deference to the story, which is the right approach in this instance.

As stated before, the possibility that Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell might tailor this piece further following the San Diego run is an exciting prospect.  The creators might consider rounding out Act II with a few additional numbers or judiciously-placed reprises.  For example, Miss Murphy’s employees, Daryl Ames and Lucy Grant—played hilariously by Jeff Hiller and Kate Loprest—could stand to have a number in addition to their part in the lackluster expositional number “My Wonderful Career.”  Dora—the slightly daffy sister played by Libby Winters—needs more material to connect the events from Act I to her raucous Act II romp, “Another Round.”  Lastly, because Act I ends in a kind of lean-forward-in-your-seat, eyes-wide-open manner, Act II opens with the reassuring “Sun’s Gonna Shine” to release the collective tension.  But the song speaks with so much hope that it practically begs for a reprise at the end of Act II.  Martin and Brickell use a reprise of “I Had a Vision” instead—which is effective and moving—but the moment could benefit from some musical quoting of “Sun’s Gonna Shine.”  No doubt, the creators feel they have a complete and streamlined story, and again, in this instance, snappy storytelling is probably the best choice.  But the audience—happily on board for the story—would probably permit a few detours.

The Old Globe should be commended for this collaboration with Ms. Brickell and Mr. Martin as well as with director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Josh Rhodes, music director Rob Berman, and the team of designers.  They have woven a story that feels good and that hopefully will parade around for awhile before it goes in the cedar chest.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 - Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Wayne Alan Wilcox as Jimmy Ray Dobbs with the cast of the world premiere of Bright Star, a new American musical with music by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, lyrics by Brickell, book by Martin, based on an original story by Martin and Brickell, and directed by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie, Sept. 14 – Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Edited:  March 24, 2016

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