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[title of show]
Asolo Conservatory

Also see Bill's review of Into the Woods


Joe Knispel, Ally Farzetta, Kim Stephenson, Evan Reynolds White
Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training is presenting [title of show] as the third production of their season. Many of my theater geek friends have related how much they love [title of show] but, though I have owned the cast recording for a long time, I wondered if it was too insider-ish, with too many jokes that only show queens (myself very much included) would catch. Example from the song "Monkeys and Playbills:"

There's the Golden Apple and
Golden Rainbow
Golden Boy and
Goldilocks

...

Beg Borrow or Steal, Buck White
Big Deal and Bring Back Birdie
and Bagels and Yox

It goes on and on and on, but just in this little snippet, I had no knowledge of Buck White or Bagels and Yox. A quick peek at my handy dandy guide to all things flop musical, "Not Since Carrie" by Ken Mandelbaum, gave me some information about the latter but nothing other than a few words about the former. Maybe I should learn to step back and enjoy a show more by paying less attention to the jokes about forgotten musicals past.

[title of show] was written by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell for a musical theater competition where it was chosen for a full reading, then produced by Vineyard Theater and, after a hiatus (and lots of pushing and pulling on Jeff and Hunter's part), it landed on Broadway for a short run. The musical has a devoted following; a lyric in the penultimate song states that the authors would "rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." This becomes the story of [title of show]. In a way it's a bit like the French Theatre of the Absurd—it is sometimes hard to tell where reality starts and stops. I enjoyed the show, especially the book. The songs are workmanlike and serve the storytelling well, but only Heidi's two songs, "What Kind of Girl Is She" and "A Way Back to Then," have the heart to be extracted successfully.

Amanda Friou was brought in from New York to direct this production. I don't know why this was; usually, faculty at Asolo Conservatory direct their productions. But results speak loudly and this production is a triumph. Because the show calls for almost no sets, only a few chairs and minimal props, there is a danger of becoming a cliche. Minimalist shows can get tedious quickly so a director needs to get the energy level up and keep it there to overcome this. Check and check.

The cast of four (plus an accompanist who is also a character in the background) was chosen from the twelve second-year students. Auditions for all roles in the season's productions are held in the early fall. Two productions this season (As You Like it and The Cherry Orchard) require all twelve actors, eight were cast in the season opening The Water Engine, and the other four became the company for [title of show]. Judging by their performances I don't think the casting was in any way a compromise. The Asolo Conservatory is a graduate program, so all have theater degrees of some sort. Joe Knispel as Jeff, Evan Reynolds White as Hunter and Kim Stephenson as Heidi all have degrees in musical theater. Ally Farzetta playing Susan, the character in the show who is a little nervous about her singing, is the only one whose background is not in musicals. Talk about casting to type. These four have been sharing classes for a year and a half now, so the chemistry is a given.

Kelly Burnette is credited with choreography, which is rudimentary, perfect for characters who in the story are not accomplished musical theater performers, except for Heidi, who has had some experience on Broadway as a dancer, swing and understudy. I love the fact that the show is performed without any amplification. Cook Theater is small and acoustically lively so voices project decently.

Musical director Darren Server does a Herculean job, playing piano and the character of Larry, who interjects himself into the story from time to time, but mostly for achieving an extremely high level of musical performance with his cast. Many of the songs require rapid-fire delivery while still maintaining clarity, all of which is in evidence throughout the show. Musical pick ups from character to character and ensemble work is on a very high level, especially since it has been six years since Asolo Conservatory produced a musical.

[title of show] is a great opportunity to see some future stars in the making.

Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training presents [title of show] through March 8, 2015, at the Cook Theater in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail. Sarasota, Florida. Box Office (941) 351-8000. For more information visit www.asolorep.org.

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Jeff: Joe Knispel
Hunter: Evan Reynolds White*
Heidi: Kim Stephenson
Susan: Ally Farzetta
Larry: Darren Server
* Appears Courtesy of Actor's Equity Association

Directed by Amanda Friou*
Choreography: Kelly Burnette
Musical Director: Darren Server
Set Design: Chris McVicker
Costume Design: Becki Leigh Stafford
Lighting Design: Meghan Dougherty
Sound Design: Matt Parker
Stage Manager: Alicia M. Thompson
Voice and Speech Coach: Patricia DeLorey
* Member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society


Photo: Frank Atura

--William S. Oser



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