BWW Reviews: BRIGHT NOW BEYOND is an Enjoyable Evening of Camp and Charm
Creating a stage adaptation of beloved material is a tricky business, especially if the work is a piece of fantasy. When you add the task of making a musical out of the work, the stakes are upped considerably. BRIGHT NOW BEYOND, a new musical by Daniel Alexander Jones and Bobby Halvorson, now playing at Salvage Vanguard Theater, is a fresh, loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum's THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. For the most part, the new piece works very well and is charming.
BRIGHT NOW BEYOND does have some issues, however, that keep it from being completely successful. More of the evening works than does not, so let me talk about the multitude of good parts of this new work first.
The set by Leilah Stewart is mostly a shimmery scrim which is used to great effect when combined with Kathryn Eader's lighting. Theatrical magic is created by using the scrim for shadow puppetry by Nitra Gutierrez that evokes everything from ancillary characters to gigantic sunflowers. The only thing I found puzzling was the reveal at the end where this was all pulled back to reveal what looked like a gigantic door that was never used. I didn't quite understand what was trying to be said here.
The cast is uniformly excellent and possess great singing voices. In particular, Jomama Jones, in the dual roles of Ozma of Oz and Jack Pumpkinhead, is exceptional. One needs a program to know it is the same performer. While Ozma is campy and slightly tongue in cheek, Jack is a beautifully drawn character that you will remember long after the house light have come up and you've left the theatre. As The Wogglebug, Jarrett King is a delight, especially in his scene with the magnifying glass explaining some of the artifacts of Oz. Jaques Colimon, as Tip, is charming and possesses one of the finest voices I have heard on an Austin stage. Florinda Bryant, as Mombi, is a powerful presence who makes the most of each moment she has on stage. As Jellia Jamb, Heather Hanna is a scene stealer. She is a delight, with exquisite comedic timing and one of the best written characters in the piece. Also worth mentioning are Robert Faires as The Scarecrow, who has a wonderful commanding presence, and Wesley Bryant, Nitra Gutierrez and Alexis Scott in multiple roles, but especially as The Waiters.
Also worth noting are the costumes by Mercedes O'Bannion. I found them quite good, and in particular loved the ones she did for The Waiters.
The direction, by Will Davis, is generally imaginative and fluid; however, I found it puzzling that almost every song was staged down center. I can only really think of one song that wasn't staged center stage. The pacing also could be picked up in some places, since the piece is performed without an intermission.
Daniel Alexander Jones' script is quite good but at one hour and fifty minutes without an intermission, it is a bit long. It could definitely use an intermission. I understand why, with a fantasy piece, there is a desire to not break the fantasy world by an intermission but it is a bit long without one.
The biggest problem with the show is the music. While BRIGHT NOW BEYOND does have some memorable moments musically (and these are the ones that have a more traditional musical theatre structure) the majority of the music in unmemorable. The score is largely dissonant and largely recitative in nature. The program did not give song titles, so forgive me if I have the names incorrect. The show opens with a great tongue-in-cheek number "Ozma" which is an ode by Ozma about how wonderful she is. This had a lovely camp quality to it that I hoped was the tone for the evening. It turned out to be sporadic. For the most part, the meandering recitatives don't work. The exception to that was Tip's finale number "I'll Change", which was very effective. Other standout numbers are Mombi's first song, Jack's song in the forest, Jellia's song "Sweetness", the Warrior Girls song (one of the best constructed songs in the show) and the Wogglebug's song.
This brings me to my major issue with BRIGHT NOW BEYOND - it really doesn't know quite what it is. At one moment it is camp and self knowing (the moments in the evening that work best) and at others it is dissonant and operatic. There is much to like here, but as a whole, the score comes across as uneven and unfinished.
The Scarecrow says: "The only true thing is the journey itself". While I enjoyed myself, I feel that a little further down the road, the creators of BRIGHT NOW BEYOND could have something truly spectacular to show us. As it is, it is still an enjoyable evening of fantasy for the inner child in us all.
Running time: Approximately 1 hours and 50 minutes, performed without an intermission.
BRIGHT NOW BEYOND, produced by Salvage Vanguard Theater, plays The Salvage Vanguard Theater (2803 E. Manor Road) now thru August 23rd. Performances run thru August 23rd, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets start at $20; Student tickets are $15 at the door with valid ID. 2-for-1 tickets available for the Thursday performances August 7th. VIP Night - August 9th - tickets start at $50 and include free drinks/appetizers with a champagne toast with the cast directly following the performance. For tickets and information, please visit www.salvagevanguard.org