Pop quiz: If you had to train young musical theater artists, what canon would you taste?
A) Rodgers and Hammerstein
B) Stephen Sondheim
C) Jerry Herman
D) Andrew Lloyd Webber
E) Kander and Ebb
F) All of the above
With The musical of musicals (The musical!), the answer is mostly F. But the mark for the apprentices of Reston Community Players as they test the waters of directing through their boisterous performance? A ++.
This satirical work – an original idea by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart that premiered on Broadway in 2003 with the slogan “Sometimes a musical isn’t enough” – packs five times the theatrical punch, and draws no punch, mocking the Grand Blanc Way’s greatest collaborations. At its heart is perhaps the oldest melodrama known to mankind: the vaudevillian “I can’t pay the rent!” sketch, so opportune in these times of mass expulsions. A damsel in distress bemoans her plight (“I can’t pay the rent!”), Recoils from a nasty landlord (“You have to pay the rent!”) And waits to be saved by a Dudley Do-Right guy ( “I’ll pay the rent!”).
The familiar crochet is recycled five times here, reimagined in styles by R&H, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, ALW, and Kander & Ebb – always bordering on musical and lyrical plagiarism. The musical of musicals is traditionally performed with four actors and a piano, but the genius of this production lies in the marriage of such hilarious and derivative material with an ensemble of 12 talented and enthusiastic teenagers. Meet the inaugural class of the RCP Learning Program, led by producer Kate Keifer and director-choreographer Jolene Vettese.
This is a crash course in musicals that is very informative for students and the public. But whether you’re a theater newbie or a theater nerd, you won’t need any footnotes to get these gags. The bulbs will twinkle in your brain all night long to the rhythm of the glare of the scene.
Your program begins with “Corn”, located in Kansas, but mainly an ode to Oklahoma! – The pioneering American musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein – with a ballet of your dreams. Cassidy Loria sets a bold and gorgeous tone as Big Willy, our hero, singing her corn sonnet. In keeping with an old-fashioned musical, the backdrop is painted, rows of corn stalks are planted, and a farm turns from outside to inside. (And wow! The sets, designed by Andrew JM Regiec, get more and more luscious and innovative with every scene.)
Successively, we meet the beloved young lady June (Jane Keifer); eyeing owner Jidder (Eli Smigielski), who stalks June through the stems; and wise Mother Abby, her riff on The sound of music“Climb Ev’ry Mountain” sung in a superior way by Kira Woldow (in nun’s dress). All the R&H works are mixed in there, then the players are sprinkled into other scenes.
For example, Kira reappears as the posh and confirmed bachelor Billy (“Billy-Baby, Billy-Bub Silly-Willy Wooly-Bully”, etc.) in “A Little Complex” – the branch of the story entangled in stumps. dark and heavy from Sondheim. Jane also shines as Miss Junie Faye in “Dear Abby”, Jerry Herman’s star vehicle. Eli transforms into Phantom Jitter, the villain of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Junita” sung sequence; he transforms again when his ghost mask is removed (uh, animorphs?).
You understand the basics. Fluid gender actors blend seamlessly as chefs and together in a showcase of talent. A note on the structure, however, that these kids helped light up: the character “Abby” – a wise voice not always present in the “I Can’t Pay the Rent” plot – delivers the mind-boggling tune with each iteration, the so-called 11 o’clock number, the musical thread sewing things together. So, Kira orders in “Corn”. Kalyani Srivastava kills the hedonistic stool Abby in “A Little Complex”. Glittery Anoushka Sharma comes down the stairs again and again as Aunt Abby. (Hello Abby! Hello, costume change!) Elizabeth Cha, pretending to be on the other side of the hill, takes over as Abigail Von Schtarr in “Aspects of Junita”. And Mayumi Gant vamps gloriously as the jaded Fraulein Abby in “Speakeasy,” the series’ nod to Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret). “Speakeasy” is also skillfully translated into German on set as Flüsterkneipe, the name of the cabaret where Jahlil Greene plays master of ceremonies Jütter with a form-fitting style.
So many stars, so many jokes, so little time. Madelyn Regan steps in in Act II as superstar Junita – the staircase turns into a balcony and we immediately absorb Lloyd Webber’s hero-cult obsession through Evita, the superstar of Jesus Christ, Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard), even Christine (sing for me!) from The Phantom of the Opera.
Dripping wit, Myiah Miller anchors the Sondheim session as tortured artist / sadist Jitter, who is part Sweeney Todd and part Seurat (from Sunday at the park with George). Keyla Niederstrasser flies as Young, illustrating for this review that perhaps Sondheim can be slyly sexist, portraying his female characters as idiots, a thesis worth exploring. Well done, Keyla.
(The power of girls and the empowerment of women runs through this production, actually. Pay close attention to the end of “Corn,” after a hysterical June states, “Why sometimes you can be hit, hit very hard. strong, and it looks like a kiss! ”I won’t give it, but props there and elsewhere to real estate designer Mary Jo Ford.)
As dazzling as all those “Broadway Babies” are, Vettese deserves a standing O for bringing them together and training them. Thanks to her midwifery profession, they seem born on stage, more comfortable and polished than your average adult community theater actor, and way funnier than the cast recording. Vettese elevates silliness to a mind-boggling level of sophistication, with each line artfully choreographed. And the performers embark on every movement with unbridled joy – vine skiddoos, Fosse-esque joints, full-fledged trenches. The action begins and ends with a bouncing chorus line – the unabashedly lifted finale from A choir line. (Instead of “One” it is “Done” – finished and done – “It’s over for the Cognoscenti theater!”)
Due to COVID, all actors are masked, but with transparent peekaboo plastic over their mouths, allowing for a bit more expression while blurring their identities. Their lines, miraculously, are not blurry, however, as in most cases their diction shines through (thank you the sound team, including assistant sound apprentice Daniel Prothe). The mask accessory eerily makes the troop more uniform, with each character being interchangeable, giving additional power to the clever costume design of Lori Crockett and the apprentice assistant Grace Drost. Everyone is a ghost! The basic set is a black leotard, with looks that dress up as you go. For the Rodgers and Hammerstein section, the choir members wear “Many a New Day” skirts and matching straw hats. During Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opera pretend play, they sport devotional tunics with sashes in multiple colors.
Behind the piano, musical director Lucia LaNave transposes character, adapting to every musical attitude. (She is the pianist for seven of the 10 performances. Tammy Lydon accompanies the shows October 22-24.) Another apprentice, Elliot Baird, is an assistant musical director. The notes and harmonies they teased from every teenager are impressive, and the enthusiasm with which they are sung more than makes up for the lack of development. Once again, an endorsement for this brilliant choice of material for young comedians. Satire is a license to take risks, and every bet here pays huge dividends.
Applause, applause for co-technical directors Sara Birkhead and Dan Widerski, stage manager Kaiti Parish and the entire production team. The lighting, designed by Franklin Coleman, is a study of contrasts, especially when moving from the daylight of a Rodgers and Hammerstein picnic to the harsh menace of the Sondheim Woods. Sound designer Richard Bird populates the barnyard, probes eerie depths, and dons the ritz with unwavering skill. The team is reinforced by apprentices Morgan Weis (stage technician) and LJ Murphy (assistant stage trainer). The techs get their moment in the spotlight – well, the dark – during an interlude before the Kander and Ebb parody. Because what education in musical theater would be complete without a nod to “musical backstage”?
There is something so delightfully meta about this experience, it requires repeated viewings. I know we at DC Metro Theater Arts have said it countless times before, that after a long pandemic intermission, the theater is back. Honestly, until now, I couldn’t believe it. The theater is not only back, it has a future. Here is your chance to catch the brightest stars of tomorrow while discovering a collection of musicals that you surely, sorely missed. A risk to be taken.
Duration: 90 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission.
The musical of musicals (The musical!) plays at the CenterStage at the Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road in Reston, Va., until November 6, 2021. Curtain time is 8 p.m., except for the mornings of October 24, 30, and 31, with a curtain at 2 p.m. For tickets ($ 20 adults, $ 15 seniors / students), contact the box office at (703) 476-4500 x3 or at restonplayers.org. CenterStage is accessible and offers listening devices for the hearing impaired. RCP’s COVID-19 policies and protocols are here.
Reston Community Players Kick Off Learning Program with Music Send