|Defying Gravity--the Magical World of Stephen Schwartz (photo by Anna Yatskevich)|
Year after year, the students of the American Musical Theater Ensemble of the Manhattan School of Music present an evening of entertainment that rivals any evening you might spend on Broadway.
Last night's DEFYING GRAVITY presented the songs of Stephen Schwartz in a clever revue format, conceived and directed by Carolyn Marlow. The concept involved extracting songs from his large oeuvre and weaving them together with dialogue that posited interesting relationships among the members of the cast, comprising a dozen talented young performers, as adept at dancing and acting as they are at singing.
There was an arrogant male figure (Joseph Sacchi) and an insecure one (Luke Sikora), and a bunch of gals just bursting with pizazz. There was a big guy with an operatic voice (Christopher Lilley) and a skinny one (Frank Humphrey) who needed a lesson in "Style" from The Magic Show.
Composer Stephen Schwartz has written a slew of captivating award-winning musicals for the stage and for film--even having scored some Disney films. His tunes are memorable and the lyrics capture the zeitgeist beautifully. Having gotten on board too late for anything but Wicked, we will have to do a library search to get exposed to more of his writing, since the taste we had last night served to whet our appetite.
The voices were all excellent and the performers adept at creating believable characters. We particularly enjoyed Allie Altieri in the wistful "Lion Tamer" from The Magic Show and her moving account of "Just Beyond the Riverbend" from the film Pocahontas. Mr. Humphrey did his best work in "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. The two artists sang these two songs simultaneously. (We don't know how they worked this out so successfully).
In "Style" the pair, pretending to be awkward losers, were coached by the very stylish Gabriela Moscoso and Christopher Lilley, both of whom had the moves. It's always humorous to see talented people pretending to be clumsy.
Ms. Moscoso was featured in a lot of numbers and impressed us with her high octane personality and expressive acting. She led Anna Mayo and Juliana Levinson in the wonderful "Sweet, Sweet, Sweet" from The Magic Show, and had a great solo in "Spread a Little Sunshine" from Pippin.
Mr. Lilley commanded the stage in "Simple Song" from Leonard Bernstein's Mass (for which Schwartz wrote the lyrics) accompanied by Mr. Humphrey and some lovely flute playing from Aaron Patterson, who was just as fine on the clarinet as he accompanied the lovely Grace Callahan in "Blame it on the Summer Night" from Rags, for which Charles Strouse wrote the music. There was a fine bright ring in her upper register. We also enjoyed the duet "All for the Best" from Godspell, in which she was joined by Anna Mayo.
Ms. Mayo was lovely in "Since I Gave My Heart Away" from Gepetto while Nicole DeLuca and Joseph Sacchi did a graceful ballroom dance. There was a theme running through the revue that Ms. DeLuca, whose character was headed for a stint on Broadway, got nothing but negativity from her boyfriend, portrayed by Joseph Sacchi, as an arrogant philanderer, trying to keep his woman down on the farm, in pre-liberation mode.
Mr. Sacchi's solo "Proud Lady" from The Baker's Wife was excellently done. He got his comeuppance from the ladies of the cast in "Turn Back, O Man" from Godspell; they sure strutted their stuff and waved their feather boas!
There were some beautiful harmonies in "Serenade" from The Baker's Wife and even more harmony in five parts in "In Pursuit of Excellence" from Children of Eden.
Juliana Levinson expressed some lovely sentiments in French in "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife.
Luke Sikora portrayed an insecure fella who finds his bearings during the show. There was nothing insecure about his performance however. His "everyman" in "Extraordinary" from Pippin was great and his "Dancing Through Life" from Wicked was even better.
The excellent musicians were not in the pit but were upstage. Music director and pianist Shane Schag was joined by guitarist Sean Richey, bassist Connor Schultze, percussionist Guilhem Flouzat and the aforementioned Aaron Patterson, a virtuoso on flute, clarinet and saxophone. Orchestrations were by Mike Webster with some special arrangements by Warren Helms.
The set and lighting by Shawn Kaufman were simple, involving staircases on either side with a walkway extending the width of the stage up above. The risers of the stairs were illuminated with tiny colored lights and the backdrop was washed in intense colors. It was simple but effective.
Colleen Durham's choreography was well suited to the skills of the students. We particularly enjoyed a dance with black bowler hats that made us think of Bob Fosse.
Whether these students elect a career on the opera stage or on the Broadway stage, they do seem destined for success.
(c) meche kroop