Wednesday, August 17, 2016

2016 Village Theatre Festival of New Musicals Wrap-Up

Jessica Skerritt, Lauren DuPree and Sara Porkalob in String (Sam Freeman)
Musicals are one of the forms of theatrical presentations that take just about the longest to get on their “feet” since they are often the most collaborative, with the most fingers in the pie, and the most complicated, with music, dance and story inter-mingling. So, in order to support them from an idea to a fully complete stage-ready vehicle, a system of presentation opportunities has developed around the country to propel them forward, often a presentation at a time. This is a “festival” system.

Those in Seattle who love new musical development may be well aware of where new musicals have opportunities to develop. Aside from some internal supports from the two major musical theatre companies, Village Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, there has been, for 16 years now, Village’s Festival of New Musicals, on the second weekend of August. The 5th Avenue has now added a “festival” of their own, which this year will take place in October.

For Village’s Festival, they choose among hundreds of entries from around the country and even a few international submission, and pick a slate of five musicals that they spend a week each on, hiring as many actor/singers as needed, and assigning a director, music director, and stage manager to assist in bringing the piece to a concert-level performance.

This year, Village has brought on Brandon Ivie as their new Associate Artistic Director, and given him the task of curating the Festival and the rest of the Village Originals program. Ivie grew up in Village programs, such as KidStage, and has steeped himself in musical theater since he was a young teen. He created a company called Contemporary Classics to produce musicals and has hosted a singing cabaret called New Voices about twice a year, here, to celebrate songwriters and new songs. He’s managed to become a bi-coastal director and worked with a number of younger musical theater creators to mount their productions.

We Foxes
One such collaborator, Ryan Scott Oliver, had his quirky updated Greek Myth, Jasper in Deadland (co-written with Hunter Foster), directed by Ivie both Off-Broadway and at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Oliver had a new work presented at this summer’s Festival, which was August 12-14. We Foxes is entirely written by Oliver, as he creates the story, composes all the music and writes all the lyrics. We Foxes encapsulates a dark story that was written based on some true events in the life of Oliver’s grandmother, who had a very tough start to her life. Oliver fictionalized from there.

The press release says, “In the small town of Havoc, Missouri at the onset of World War II, a tough, unmannered orphan girl is plucked up from her vagabond life, adopted into a world of style and social graces by the beloved wife of the local sheriff. But in her new, unfamiliar life, she begins to discover that there are sinister secrets beneath the shiny veneer of this small town. Her adopted mother is not who she seems to be, and people are lurking in the dark.”

The musical adds in a component of ghostly presences of essentially people who the sheriff’s wife has murdered. Oliver reported, in a talk-back (a feature after every single presentation at Festival where audience members are asked to reflect their opinions to the writers), that this Festival version was the first time he decided to weave in this ghostly presence. The work seems headed toward an American Gothic aesthetic that could make it stand out in style.

Keaton Whittaker, a veteran of KidStage, as well, and a rising young musical theater performer, took on the complex role of young Willa, along with powerhouse Katie Thompson as the Sheriff’s wife. Tony Lawson performed the role of the Sheriff, and Frederick Hagreen played the young soldier who becomes Willa’s love interest. It was directed by Victor Pappas and music directed by Joshua Zecher-Ross.

Costs of Living
Costs of Living was another musical that is written entirely by one man, Timothy Huang. This musical also has roots in a true story, a 2009 newspaper article about two Nepalese-immigrant cabbies in New York City who shared a cab and one attacked the other. Huang apparently responded to the intrigue of what might make a man snap like that, and morphed the story into Chinese-immigrant cabbies in an effort to infuse more of his ancestral culture into the story.

The musical explores immigrants’ dreams and desires and the difficulties, including learning sufficient English and dealing with racism, that confront those who must remake their lives in America. While the attack is introduced in the opening number, the musical leaps backward in time to establish the connection between the two cabbies, one who drives nights and the other who drives days, and the community they create with others. In fact, that surprisingly allows for a great deal of humor to be included, for much of the musical.

Rich Ceraulo and Hansel Tan sang the two cabbies. It was directed by Marlo Hunter and music directed by R.J. Tancioco. The musical has already won the 2016 Richard Rodgers Award after being selected for the 2015 NAMT Festival of New Musicals.

How To Break
A beatbox musical, meant to include breakdancing and inner city dancers, How To Break, was presented by Aaron Jafferis (book and lyrics) and Rebecca Hart (music) and Yako 440 (beatbox score). The presentation was directed by Kathryn Van Meter, who as a choreographer tried to help the audience “see” the dance-infused musical, and music directed by Orlando Morales (a musical theater writer-composer himself). The musical focuses on two teenagers in a hospital trying to understand their illnesses (cancer and sickle cell anemia) and express difficult emotions through dance and musical poetry.

Jafferis has worked for years at a hospital in New Haven, CT. Impressed by the vigor of young people he has met who battle their illnesses bravely, he used the sounds of the hospital and of the human body as a stepping stone into the story.

Aisha Carpenter and Adrian Lockhart sang the roles of the teens. One guitar is used on stage by the woman who plays the musician-in-residence at the hospital, but otherwise the score is created entirely using beatbox (created by Yako 440 and performed at the festival by the talented Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan) and a looper that layers a unique soundscape live on stage.

The musical, String (book by Sarah Hammond and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon), is written about the Greek Fates, three sisters and goddesses who are, as Hammond explains, "key figures in Greek mythology, deciding everyone’s destiny,” but they get on Zeus’s bad side and he casts them out to live in a modern day skyscraper, where they spin, measure, and snip the strings of mortal lives on the 200th floor.

Oldest sister, Atropos (played by Jessica Skerritt), meets security guard Mickey (played by Dane Stokinger), and realizes that she is supposed cut Mickey's string (his destiny is to crash to his death in an elevator accident). Prioritizing love, she decides to risk a flaw in the tapestry of the universe in order to preserve his life.

The other sisters were sung by Lauren DuPree and Sara Porkalob and their mother was Bobbi Kotula. The presentation was directed by Allison Narver and music directed by Nathan Young. This musical also had a bit of a true-story angle, since Gwon used an article about a man stuck in his office building’s elevator over the weekend!

Writing Kevin Taylor
Written by Will Van Dyke, currently the associate music director of the musical, Kinky Boots, on Broadway, and Josh Halloway, who writes for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, this is an unabashed comedy about a writer with a bad case of writer’s block, Kevin (played by Joshua Carter), who is going through a divorce with Julia (played by Billie Wildrick) when an overly-enthusiastic teenage fan (sung by Matthew J. Seib) shows up on his doorstep hoping to be his intern.

The show is framed by the boy Tyler’s imagination of a comic book/superhero drama (The Legend of Wonderboy). Tyler hatches a scheme to pretend to be the writer’s long lost son to reunite the writer with his wife.

The presentation was directed by David Ira Goldstein and music directed by Jeff Bell. This musical along with String and Cubamor are going to get a great opportunity to gain additional development into full productions that are considered “developmental productions,” this next year at Village.

Village has done this with several musicals in the last several years, such as a rock musical about Lizzie Borden (Lizzie), a cautionary tale about trying to connect on the internet (Cloaked), a quasi-history of the life of James Watt (WATT?!?) and a musical about a man trying to escape being caught in a musical (The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes).

They will get more than a week’s rehearsal and be given life with sets and costumes and lights and will be presented over two weekends. This opportunity will enable to writers to continue to see what works on stage and refine and change their work. It’s an invaluable opportunity to have each set of creators also be able to work as the rehearsals progress and make changes.

Cubamor was presented at last year’s Festival and has book and lyrics by James D. Sasser and music and lyrics by Charles Vincent Burwell. It was based on the 2001 film by Joshua Bee Alafia and brings to life the city of Havana, Cuba, with intoxicating music and mystical forces.

The press release says, “Two Americans and two Cubans find their paths unexpectedly crossed as they attempt to escape their pasts. Can their love bridge cultures divided by vast political, historical, and social differences – and what will they risk along the way?” A Latin-inspired modern score blends traditional rhythms and contemporary hip-hop.

Cubamor, since last summer, had more developmental time at Village last winter. Those who joined as Village Originals members were invited to more of the year-long workshops and presentations. If you are a music lover and love supporting new musicals in particular, you can see each or all of these: Cubamor (December 2-18, 2016), Writing Kevin Taylor (February 17 – March 5, 2017) and String (June 2-18, 2017) in the “little” Village Theatre, a block away from the main stage. See you there!