Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Utopia, Ohio tells the story of three distinct groups that attempted to establish communities in the same, small location along the banks of the Ohio River about 30 miles east of Cincinnati during the 1840s. Each group was seeking to create an idealistic world for its people: one focusing on freedom and anarchy; one founded on Christian spiritualism and anti-slavery efforts; and one a cult that believed the oceans would turn into lemonade and humans would quickly evolve into new creatures with tails. The musical focuses on three characters, one for each utopian community, seeking a new chance in life and how they were led to these groups.
The score and book are the work of Joshua Steele, who has been active in various roles and positions in the Cincinnati arts scene for several decades. The show is almost entirely sung-through. The story is an intriguing one, and the primary characters–a widowed female shoemaker, an escaped slave, and a Jewish immigrant fleeing from persecution in Europe–are relatable and distinct. The songs are varied in style, with traditional folk and spirituals dominating the musical landscape, with bits of rockabilly, bluegrass, and more contemporary musical theatre sounds also incorporated. The lyrics mostly adhere to true rhymes expected of conventional musical theatre and include a number of very witty lines. Song highlights include "Ballad of Samuel Lee," a beautiful and melodic song for the escaping slave, "Hypocrisy," the Act 2 opener "Work Song," and "You Must Stay Behind," a lovely duet ballad.
For the most part, the songs tell about the characters or action, rather than actually showing the interactions or conveying internal thoughts of characters. Instead of sung dialogue, there are lyrics such as "I hear him say" or "she said," which serve as sung narration. This is different from most musical theatre pieces, and likely limits the emotional impact of the story. The show's final number is reminiscent of the finale of Ragtime, another show that follows three distinct groups and which uses narration (though on a much more limited basis).
The production is directed by Zach Steele, brother of the writer. The five actor-singers making up the cast play multiple characters and also accompany one another on a variety of instruments (most playing more than one instrument). Because of this arrangement, the blocking options are limited, especially in Act 1. The story, as well as the relationships between and distinctions among the characters, are generally clear, and there is good use of the performance space. Projections of illustrations of the characters and settings also certainly enhance the understanding of which character is singing. The costumes by Jim Stump are appropriate and contain small items which are switched out to distinguish changes in characters for a single actor effectively. The actors use hand-held microphones, but at the performance I attended, a number of important lyrics were obscured due to poor balance with the instruments or faulty amplification.
The cast members are all solid singers, skilled actors, and versatile musicians. Director Zach Steele portrays Moishe, the Jewish immigrant, and supplies fervor in both his role and while playing guitar. Linsey Rogers portrays a number of supporting roles, providing distinct characterizations and praiseworthy accompaniment throughout. Jeremiah Savon Jackson sounds wonderful performing several of the show's best songs as Samuel Lee, and includes a number of touching acting choices. Jennie Malone is fierce and spirited as Sarah, the widowed shoemaker seeking a better life for herself. Brad Myers inserts most of the humor of the piece as he comedically portrays the founders and leaders of the three communities.
Utopia, Ohio offers a unique and local story worthy of dramatizing, and a praiseworthy score. It demonstrates great potential as a musical theatre piece. Further development is needed to clarify the storytelling and add action to a piece that is currently somewhat restricted by the emphasis on narration, duality of performers as actors and the accompanying musicians, and the doubling of so many characters by the actors. This sold-out initial premiere of the show should be enough to encourage Joshua Steele to keep working on the piece.
Utopia, Ohio runs through August 13, 2023, at the Carnegie Center of Columbia Tusculum, 3738 Eastern Avenue (just down the river from the setting of the show), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit www.hugowesttheatricals.com.