Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
A number of musical theater writers and writing teams have musical revues culling material from their various shows. Back in 2002, an original revue of songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens premiered at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). They Were You: The Songs of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, a new revue created at CCM pulls together songs of the team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, and this tribute was long overdue. Their recent production revealed a thoughtful, varied, and pleasant journey through pair's exemplary work, and showcased some fine performances and design at CCM.
This revue includes over fifty songs taken from The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do!, Celebration, Mirette, Roadside, Colette Collage, Philemon, The Bone Room, and Grover's Corners (the duo's brilliant musical adaptation of Our Town). It's been reported that Schmidt and Jones often wrote copious songs for their shows (many of which didn't make it in the final draft), so some cut songs are included as well. CCM Musical Theater Chair Aubrey Berg created the piece, and did a good job of choosing from the wide variety of songs from the various shows. They are arranged in groups by theme: Innocence, Love, Battle of the Sexes, Marital Bliss, Disillusionment, Learning Who We Are, The Natural World, Experience, and the Human Spirit. The revue gives a great overview of the songs styles and subject matter of their shows. If the large section that opens act two on Disillusionment is quite the downer, it is at least placed correctly and has more uplifting themes following it.
They Were You includes songs that are well-known (such as "Try To Remember" and "My Cup Runneth Over"), and also those that will be new, even to those most ardent theater aficionados. There are quite a few numbers from I Do! I Do!, as well as 110 in the Shade (maybe a few too many), which CCM presented in this Studio Series space in Spring 2015. Both contain wonderful scores. The combination of "Raunchy" and "Flibbertigibbet," the song that was cut in favor of "Raunchy" in 110 in the Shade, is delightful. "Goodbye World" and "It Isn't Hard To Get Married" provide a glimpse as to how wonderful the score for Grover's Corners is, and it's a shame that the duo has lost the rights to the show for now. Schmidt's music includes lovely melodies, sometimes soaring and other times plaintive, and often accompanied by hypnotic chords which quickly identify him as the composer. The lyrics by Jones have a deceptively sophistication about them, and employ descriptive words that paint a clear picture of the situation and bare the soul of the character.
For the recent production, director Aubrey Berg kept the pace moving along briskly, and created mini-dramatic scenes for songsgiving the cast specific characterizations rather than just singing the songs. Berg incorporated props effectively, and the few set pieces were used well. There were a few instances where the performers started their dialogue before the applause from the previous number was finished, obscuring what was being said. The choreography by CCM grad Katie Johannigman used the limited performance space effectively and was well-suited to the material. The dances for "Little Red Hat" and "The Show Goes On" were especially noteworthy. Stephen Goers served as musical director, and included some superb vocal and two-piano musical arrangements for the show. Some songs that are solos in their source shows were expanded here to add performers and some splendid harmonies.
The program provided to the audience doesn't specify which cast members sing which songs, so identifying who is who is difficult, as well as calling out individual performances or talents. However, each of the six performers sang splendidly and did a great job of expressively embodying detailed characters within each song. Gabe Wrobel, Emily Fink, Stavros Koumbaros, Michelle Coben, Karl Amundsen, and Aria Braswell each are true triple-threats and provided committed performance throughout.
The scenic design by Thomas C. Umfrid included a round, slightly tiered wooden platform to define the performance space, and a beautiful, night sky mural. The very attractive and non-time specific costumes by Brooke Arthur were all in the grey/white/pink palette for act one, before changing to grey/maroon/black for the last half of the show. The lighting by Parker Conzone was professionally designed.
One of the great things about CCM Studio Series offerings, besides the free tickets, is the chance to see lesser known shows, or in this case, a world premiere. They Were You: The Songs of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, is a revue that will hopefully be licensed and made available for other theater companies to perform. The talented CCM students brought the material to life, and it's fitting that the song "Celebration" bookends the revue, for the show confirms and celebrates the high quality of this talented songwriting duo and their legacy in the musical theater world. They Were You played at CCM from October 5 9, 2016.