Even more interesting, two of San Diego's smaller companies opened world premiere musicals of their own on consecutive evenings. While both are deserving of praise merely for tackling such a project, the second of the two, Harmony, Kansas, at Diversionary Theatre, works particularly well.
Relative newcomers Anna K. Jacobs and Bill Nelson have written that rarest of gems, an original musical for which neither book nor score is based on another source. And the result of their labor is a tuneful and touching story that has inspired Diversionary to mount an exemplary production of it.
Heath (Jacob Caltrider) is a young farmer who is driven to succeed in his chosen profession. His boyfriend, Julian (Tom Zohar), has moved from Kansas City and for the past year has struggled to adjust to rural life. One frustration for Julian has been the lack of activities with gay friends, so he is excited to learn that a group of gay men are meeting weekly to sing together and enjoy each other's company. Julian's enthusiasm is dampened, however, when Heath refuses to accompany him to the "Monday night poker group," claiming that being seen with the group members could hurt his chances of growing his business.
Eventually, though, Julian prevails and Heath grudgingly meets a diverse group of gay men: Wiley (John Whitley), the organizer and conductor; Fuzz (Bill Nolte), a successful farmer and former mayor; Darrell (Tony Houck), whose partner Peter spends a good deal of time traveling for work; Kent (Anthony Methvin), whose work has temporarily brought him to the area; and DJ (Dylan Hoffinger), an irrepressible gay teenager. Heath's resistance breaks down when he realizes that Fuzz can help him with his business, DJ is a mechanical wiz and happy to have a part-time job, and the others are friendly and supportive.
The singing starts to get serious, and some of the men want to sing in public, while others do not, citing potential harm their businesses and their relationships. "These folks know who we are, but they don't want our sexuality pushed in their faces," goes the argument against public performance. After crisis hits, however, the group realizes the importance of being proud of who they are, as well as the role that public performances as singers can play in helping the community to accept the chorus members, sexuality and all.
Mr. Nelson's book and lyrics feel about right (full disclosure: I have sung with gay choruses for nearly 20 years). Some will find Heath and Julian's live-in relationship confusing, given Heath's initial adamant stance that public knowledge of his sexuality will harm him. Others may find unfilled holes in Darrell and Peter's relationship, especially because Peter is said to be a member of the group, but he is constantly traveling and never appears. The different types contrast well, though, and Mr. Hoffinger as DJ provides high energy, outspoken honesty, and lots of humor to what otherwise could have been an overly serious bunch.
Ms. Jacobs has written some highly singable melodies that fit Mr. Nelson's lyrics well. The song structure is pretty traditional, with each cast member given a solo feature. Mr. Zohar's character even has an eleven o'clock number of sorts. The finale, "We Will Sing," is an anthem any gay chorus would be proud to perform.
Director James Vasquez and his creative team have mounted a simple but effective production for Harmony, Kansas. Sean Fanning's unit set provides as much playing space as possible, and Shirley Pierson has chosen costumes that look rural without sacrificing sexiness. Adam Wachter orchestrated the music for piano and acoustic bass, as well as coached the men to sing with deliberately varying degrees of choral effectiveness. The only thing I missed was choreography, something Mr. Vasquez does with great facility.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Jacob Caltrider's Heath claims to be nervous about his singing, while in reality Mr. Caltrider has the best voice of the bunch. Tom Zohar marks a welcome return to San Diego theatre with an impish and wry performance. Tony Houck plays a range of emotions with ease; he lands the jokes in a charming way. Anthony Methvin, John Whitley and Bill Nolte have somewhat less to do, but they all contribute well to the choral sound.
Sophisticated urban audiences may find some difficulty identifying with the issues of being "out" that are at the core of Harmony, Kansas, but no matter how sophisticated, they'll be sure to buy into the power of song to change hearts and minds.
Performances through July 22, 2012, at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego, California, 92116. Tickets ($27 - $41) are available by calling (619) 220-0097 or by visiting www.diversionary.org.
Diversionary Theatre presents the world premiere production of Harmony, Kansas, with music by Anna K. Jacobs, and book and lyrics by Bill Nelson. Directed by James Vasquez with orchestrations and music direction by Adam Wachter set design by Sean Fanning, costumes by Shirley Pierson, lighting design by Michelle Carron, and props by David Medina. The production stage manager is Traci VanWyck and the stage manager is Maria Orozco.
The cast includes Jacob Caltrider as Heath, Dylan Hoffinger as DJ, Tony Houck as Darrell, Anthony Methvin as Kent, Bill Nolte as Fuzz, John Whitley as Wylie and Tom Zohar as Julian.