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STEPHEN SONDHEIM
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Give a 'Listen' to New Vagabonds Show

          Rodgers and Hammerstein have one.  Kander and Ebb have a couple.  Stephen Sondheim has a few.  And so does David Friedman.  What do they all have?  Musical revues of their songs.  Now you are probably wondering, who is David Friedman?  Well, according to the lengthy (at two pages it is perhaps too earnest a hard sell to convince the audience of his success) program insert, he has conducted on Broadway and for the scores of a few Disney films, and even wrote a score for Disney's Bambi and Aladdin sequels.  Apparently, his works have been recorded by the likes of Barry Manilow, Petula Clark and even Seinfeld's Jason Alexander.  The insert also talks about several numbers like they are integral parts of the American Pop Culture fabric, like say, "My Heart Will Go On" or "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."  But have you ever heard "Listen to My Heart" or "Trust the Wind"?  Chances are, the answer is no.  And yet, he has compiled a songbook big enough to sustain a two act show called Listen to My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman, which opened last weekend at Vagabond Players in Fells Point.

            And so it begs the question, why produce a musical revue of songs most of us haven't heard by a man whose name we've never heard of?  The answer to that, according to the program notes is that the director (Tom Wyatt) saw this show at Studio 54 (upstairs) and "fell in love with it."  Oh, have I been there myself – trying to convince everyone I meet that I have discovered a hidden treasure.  So I can understand his passion.  Am I equally enamored of the piece?  Well, no.  But did I like it?  Absolutely!

            There are positives and negatives to producing this piece.  On the plus side, it hasn't been done much, so the material is fresh, unlike A Grand Night for Singing (the Rodgers and Hammerstein show).  The material isn't particularly challenging, unlike Side By Side By Sondheim (the Sondheim show), so it is easy to cast.  They aren't widely known in a different context, unlike And the World Goes 'Round – the Kander and Ebb show, so there is little risk of disappointment.  On the negative side, it hasn't been done much, so the material is fresh.  The material isn't particularly challenging.  They aren't widely known in a different context, so there a little risk of disappointment. Add to that, with the rare exception (details below) most of the tunes are so similar that I defy anyone outside of the cast to be able to hum one minutes after the final curtain.  Then there are the lyrics (most by Mr. Friedman, but also with such folk as Kathie Lee Gifford) which are marginally clever, and endlessly pat and perfect.  Most are story songs, but almost none of the stories offer much in the way of conflict or interesting points of view.

            Another negative, though it is oddly comforting, too, as it gives the audience even less to digest, is the equally pat and perfect staging by Tom Wyatt.  He must really have taken the day they taught symmetry in directing class to heart.  There is literally never a moment where the staging isn't completely the same on both sides of the stage.  One could draw a line down the center and at any given time, both sides are EXACTLY the same, down to the hand position.  It looks a lot like those old acting class mirror exercises.  At one point, there are five singers in a line at the edge of the stage.  Each sings a couple of lines and turns to the next performer.  Who was going to sing next was never even a mild curiosity.  Even the solo numbers are staged the same way.  Start out center stage, move stage right, cross to stage left.  More creative staging might have challenged the overqualified cast, and added much interest for the audience, who, were it not for the high quality of the performers and their accompanist (the wonderful Elizabeth Fink), would likely be in a numbing mind freeze before intermission.  The good news is that Mr. Wyatt seems to have spent the majority of his rehearsal time on musical direction, which was definitely well worth the time.  Vocally, this show is aces.

 

            By now, you are probably wondering why I still say I liked it.  The answer is simple: the cast is amazing.  Collectively, they have nine of the nicest voices currently on a Baltimore stage, individually, and more importantly, together.  When they sing as one, it is absolutely goose-flesh inducing.  And the power of their voices might just be a threat to the centuries old building the theatre is in!  Talk about music to your ears!  Each of the nine also has his or her moment to shine, and boy, do they.

            Jeff Burch, who alternates in his role with Dennis Wood, has a pleasant voice, and is especially nice when he really lets go.  His "If You Love Me", an ode to being fed as a sign of love, is both touchingly sweet and very funny.  It helps that he acts the song as well as he sings it.  Ken Ewing, powerful of voice and with some innate comic ability does well in his duet, "Two Different Worlds", really adding to the twist ending to the song.  (On the downside, he is so good at it, one is disappointed that such twists are almost nowhere else to be found in the evening.) 

Chuck Graham, also with a terrific voice, starts off the evening with a bang, leading the company in "Trust the Wind" and brings a grace and sullen beauty to the touching "You're There", a dramatic number that offers a finale to the evening's one extended "storyline."  Dan Johnson, always a reliable presence in any show he is in, is the other half of the aforementioned storyline, offering a tender portrayal of half of a gay couple.  About that, it is almost cliché to include such a coupling anymore, so it really offers no shock value, but both Graham and Johnson play it so down to earth and with such sincerity, that it really makes a case for gay marriage.  (Side note: perhaps Mr. Graham ought to remove his wedding ring – it isn't legal, yet).  Anyway, Mr. Johnson is the kind of actor you can't help but watch, and miss when he is not onstage.  His "Trick of Fate" is beautifully affecting.

Holly Pasciullo is a very funny lady, and thank Heaven she gets to show some of that off in this show.  Her "My Simple Wish", which offers the shows wittiest lyrics, is an absolute showstopper.  Her delivery is flawless, and she has a nice belt, too.  Speaking of belting, Elizabeth Ruddy (so amazing in MAF's Beehive) is powerful!  Her voice fills the room and makes your senses come alive.  "Only My Pillow Knows" shows that her gifts are much more than the material demands of her.

Alyson Shirk offers a stirring rendition of a song called "We Can Be Kind", which sounds exactly like what it is – a plaintive anthem begging the world to just get along.  Schmaltzy?  That's an understatement.  But Ms. Shirk is so convincing, you almost forget that what she's singing would cause Gandhi to cringe.  Beth Weber, a soprano, has the voice least qualified for this show.  That's not to say she is a bad singer – she does fine – but the operatic quality of her voice doesn't match the pop music banality of the songs she sings.  Picture Beverly Sills singing "Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and you get the picture.

Finally, in what must be a casting coup, the show boasts the talents of Shannon Wollman (appearing with permission of Actors Equity).  God bless her, she gives 100% to every second she is onstage.  What a pro!  Shannon Wollman at 50% is probably more than enough.  She acts, sings and dances her way through the show like she was performing in one of the greatest musicals ever written.  Her "I'm Not My Mother" is an absolute scream, and by far the highlight of the first act.  And the darker tones she brings to her part of "The Gift of Trouble" and "We Live on Borrowed Time" lend credibility to the formulaic, predictable lyrics of both numbers.  Ms. Wollman is in need of a show that really shows off her considerable talents.  The same could be said for the rest of the cast. 

One last interesting point is that in each act, the song before the last number plays like a big finale, causing the final songs of each act to be anticlimactic, and kind of strange.  Stranger still, there is an encore number.  It, like the show itself, points out the downside – enough is enough with the pat endings!  But it also points out the pluses – it is your last chance to see nine truly remarkable performers. How about next year, Vags finds a show for the same nine that requires them to do more?

 

PHOTO: (L to R) Chuck Graham, Jeff Burch, Shannon Wollman and Dan Johnson.  Photo by Tom Lauer.


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