As the genius of Oscar Hammerstein II gave way to the superb craftsmanship of Stephen Sondheim, so did Sondheim's work lay the foundation for a new generation of composers. It was just a matter of time until those composers - Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon, and others - influenced the next new musical theatre songwriting artists.
Watching Dreams This Way: The Best of Raw Impressions Music Theatre, playing at TADA! Theater Space through April 3, one can't help but feel that next wave already upon us. The strictures under which the eight short musicals comprising the piece were originally written are severe - there were only ten days from first conception to final version. But these pieces are raw and pure, likely to represent the artists' innate gifts and musical proclivities better than a piece that has been thoroughly committeed and workshopped.
Judging by these "raw impressions," there seems to be no lack of talent in the next group of composers, though the influence of Sondheim, Brown, and the others is strong enough to make one question how "raw" any of these pieces are. It often seems as if many of these new voices sound a great deal like older ones; to what degree have the highly individualized musical styles of composers from Sondheim on down impacted these newer writers' abilities to create something as uniquely theirs? We - and they - may never know.
But only one piece here has the glimmer of something entirely new and special. "Dreams This Way," written by Mark Bazzone and Eli Bolin, is set in a busy office, where three young people (played by Amanda Ryan Paige, Lucy Sorenson, and Patrick Mellen), attempt to find human connections in their stifling and dehumanizing world. Each character is defined through his or her job: Paige types (and therefore sings typing sounds), Mellen sweeps the floor, and Sorenson works the switchboard. "Dreams This Way" is expressionistic, reminiscent of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, though with a distinctively modern flair. It's sad, pointed, and achingly real, beautifully capturing the hopelessness brought on by a future there for the grasping yet forever out of reach.
The only other mini-musical quite up to that level is "My Gay Best Friend," written by David Javerbaum and Jenny Giering. Though highly suggestive of Jason Robert Brown's singular story-song style, it's completely fresh: Paige is Joyce, a woman whose best friend in New York is her gay roommate Ben (Mellen), but who can't stand his new boyfriend and soon-to-be husband Gerald (Gavin Esham). Both serious and funny, "My Gay Best Friend" is a lovingly crafted tribute to the art of friendship and the most moving piece in Dreams This Way.
Aside from the nice opening number (written just for this production by Maryrose Wood and Curtis Moore), most of the other playlets don't have much of an impact. Two come close: "Wallflowers" (Timothy J. Mathis/Michael Moricz) and "Man Near the Moon" (Trista Baldwin/Scott Ethier) are Sondheimian in construction and subject matter (a solitary man meeting a woman who gives him hope and the man behind the success of the first moon landing), but don't explore their topics very thoroughly. It's likely that these two pieces, perhaps more than the others, would benefit from lengthier treatments.
As for the rest, "Goodbye, Dolly" is a musical straight out of the Urinetown school, but writers R.N. Sandberg and David Rodwin seem try too hard to impose musical theatre values on a story about the famous cloned sheep; "Be My Spirit Guru" (Dan O'Brien/Andrew Gerle) and "Fifty Million Dollars" (Mac Rogers/Pete Muller) are interesting attempts at dissecting modern relationship mores, but don't add up to much; and "How Many Annas" (Alexandra Tolk/Allison Leyton-Brown) is an uneven, predictable attempt at a psychological horror story.
Dreams This Way was directed by Daniella Topol and has musical direction by Daniel Feyer, and they both keep the show sounding good and moving smoothly from one piece to the next. Orit Jacoby Carroll has come up with some nice representative set pieces; Andrew Hill's lighting design is fine; and Heather Dunbar's costumes are occasionally very clever. Jennifer Waldman and Jimmy Bennett round out the team of performers, all of whom are talented singers and actors; the cast has no weak links.
But it's the writers' new voices that remain central throughout, and the glimpses they provide - to whatever degree of success - of musical theatre's future are the primary reasons Dreams This Way is such an intriguing and important production.
Dreams This Way: The Best of Raw Impressions Music Theatre