When Michael Feinstein took over the musical theater centric night spot, 54 Below, he broadened the programming there to include concert versions of new musicals as part of his long time commitment to supporting the new generation of musical theater writers and singers, as well as the Great American Songbook. This has been a great thing for the general public, who love new musicals but aren’t normally invited to private industry readings. It’s also a boon for the authors of new musicals who need a wider and affordable showcase for their work.
The concert presentation tonight of The Songs of Small Town Story: A Musical About a Musical that Rocked a Community, was a fine showcase of a very promising new musical by the talented team of Sammy Buck and Brandon James Gwinn. The powerful new music is by Mr. Gwinn, and the fine lyrics are by both Mr. Buck and Mr. Gwinn. The book is by Mr. Gwinn from a concept originally commissioned and developed by the New York Theater Barn.
The show was first done as a reading in 2013 at the Festival of New Musicals at the Village Theater in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. This presentation comes on the heels of its recent World Premiere production by the American Theater Group. The authors stressed that every time this show is done it creates a family out of the cast. So the cast from that production stayed together as a creative family to bring the show to New York City tonight with love for the material, and one another.
The show has an engaging and provocative “high concept”. In the small, conservative town of Spear Grove, Texas, the high school drama teacher, Mr. Ford, makes the brave choice of presenting Rentas the annual school musical. As he so guilelessly describes it, “It’s like Friends,except the’ve all got aids!” This sets the conservative residents of the town against the diverse and bohemian world which Rent represents.
Scott (Nick Siccone, with his nerdy glasses and scruffy beard, looking like a beatnik version of young Woody Allen) is a theater loving high schooler who always tries out for the school plays, typically with the support of his conservative father, Dave (the nicely grounded Stacey Todd Holt). But his father draws the line at this one. This puts Nick in a bind, because he has a crush on the hottest girl in the theater department, Caroline (long and luscious Jacqueline Neeley). Scott auditions for the play to get close to her, and has to keep it from his father when he gets cast opposite her.
Meanwhile, we are told that the school board is in an uproar over the school doing a show with drugs, gays, and unemployed people. One of the funnier numbers from the show makes fun of the conservatives saying they can’t do “That Kind of Show.” In it, the kids tick off the “undesirable” elements in innocuous shows such as Godspell (Jesus gets crucified) and the Wizard of Oz (Dorothy is a double murderer!). Another of the boys points out, “Being in Brigadoon didn’t make me want to wear a kilt…at least not every day!” But that doesn’t reassure the school board.
Also trying to adjust to life in this town are recent East Coast transplants Alex (a dynamite Illana Gabrielle), a closeted lesbian lonelier than a coyote, and her liberal mom, Lois (the deadpan and funny Clare McClanahan). At one point, Alex kisses Caroline under the pretext of showing it to be no big thing. But she accidentally gets outed by Scott at the school board meeting, and driven out of the Baptist food pantry where she has been volunteering. Since the book by Mr. Buck never lets her hook up with any other closeted Republican girl, she ends up alone at the end. I can’t say I loved that choice. But they pay it off in a terrific song, “One Lone Star,” in which Alex compares herself proudly to the lone star on the Texas flag.
In a concert presentation like this one, the lack of the complete book makes it hard to judge whether all the songs are set up correctly. Scott and Caroline have a song where they finally connect called “You Get Me,” which was very cute unto itself, but from the lyrics I had to wonder if it was really well prepared by the scenes we didn’t see.
One “character” conspicuously absent from the concert was the Conservative Community of the Town. They had a representative, Iris, who starts out opposed to the presentation of the play, and comes around gradually. Also, it’s Scott’s conservative father who stretches farthest outside of his comfort zone in the end to show support for his son…as well he should do. It seems the conservatives as a group are not really fleshed out at this point in the show’s development. They deserve their own song, like Cool, Cool, Conservative Men from 1776, and didn’t get it.
We also didn’t really get to hear the drama teacher, Mr. Ford, man up very much for his choice when the town opposed it. He seems to be a very minor character in this show, and I wondered why he wasn’t more of a Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. This is definitely a character who needs a big song in the future.
New Yorkers are so blessed to have great musical theater talents who come out to do these kind of developmental presentations for car fare and a beer. You’ll definitely be hearing more from Nick Siccone, who touched us all as Scott. Illana Gabrielle is a delightful actor and powerhouse singer with killer looks… the kind of normal person attractiveness which becomes radiantly beautiful when filled with her performing passion. As Scott’s father, Stacey Todd Holt brought a real working man sensibility to the role, along with a love of his on stage son which made him totally likeable, whatever he thought or said. Statuesque Jacqueline Neeley had a kind of Lisa Kudrow innocence which was endearing. But she was given a couple lyrically complex songs which were like trying to sing with marbles in her mouth, and I understood very little of them as a result. Clare McClanahan engaged our sympathy with her liberal agenda, and brought the house down with a wonderful song about the difficulties of being a parent, It’s My Job.
The hard working chorus included Zach Blanchette, Jessi Clayton, Sunnie Eraso, Thursday Farrar, A.J. Foggiano, Frank Paiva, Lonel Ruland and Joanna Young.
The Feinstein’s/54 Below sound guy frequently buried vocals in the mix, and the drummer needed a cage. Apart from that, the singing was all excellent, and the band under Mr. Gwinn’s direction from the piano was outstanding overall.
You can’t see this show anywhere else yet. It’s still looking for its next developmental production. The authors want this show to create conversations between the left and right. God knows, we need anything which can facilitate that right now. Musicals tend to break down barriers and open doors. So let’s hope it comes back to town in a bigger incarnation soon…after it plays Texas.