BWW Review: Superstar[s]: THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER at MSMT
"Superstar" is the title of the final number in Maine State Music Theatre's third concert staging, THE MUSIC OF Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the designation seems to apply just as easily to the aspirations and abilities of the young artists who brought this sensational evening of theatre to life. Each season MSMT, as part of its Educational Fellowship Program, presents a fully staged concert performance created completely by these young professionals in training, and, each year in recent memory, the offerings have grown more complex, the talent more dazzling. Last night's performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music bears witness to that phenomenon, offering an evening of inspired staging, strong solo and ensemble performances, and spectacular vocalism and dancing.
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber reigned supreme in the West End and on Broadway for more than three decades, defining musical theatre in the late 20th century. His special brand of "rock opera" gave the canon some of its most enduring works, among them CATS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. MSMT was fortunate to receive the rights to perform this revue with its intern company, and the resulting selection of songs makes for an unforgettable journey through musical theatre history. Organized and ordered with a strong sense of coherence, the revue features favorites and lesser-known gems; alternates large-scale ensemble pieces with more intimate solos, and blends storytelling with lyricism.
Directed and choreographed by Curt Dale Clark and Raymond Marc Dumont, the concert staging approaches the material with a brilliant grasp of the repertoire, a freshness of approach, and the savvy ability to use the individual talents of the performers to their fullest. Clark and Dumont are masters at finding the heart in a song or a work, and they are not afraid to change up contexts to give a new slant to material. Some of the numbers adhere to narrative derived directly from the plot of the musical; others are treated as vignettes with new trappings, while still others are mined for their purely emotional or character content. The resulting ninety-minute work moves fluidly and compellingly, serving up a richly textured theatrical fabric of ideas, emotions, and images.
The choreography, which blends ballet, jazz, tap, and tumbling, is breathtaking, especially in the large ensemble numbers such as "Masquerade," "Jellicle Ball," "Gumby Cats," Light at the End of the Tunnel," and "Superstar," and each of the performers demonstrates his/her strong technique.
Lloyd Webber's music is intricate and challenging to both the performer and the listener. Under the exceptionally fine music direction of Ben McNaboe (Evan Cuddly, assistant), the cast and eight-piece orchestra infuse this music with vibrancy and passion. McNaboe has arranged the songs for the company and, together with the directors, has created some interesting groupings for duets, trios, and ensembles. As conductor, he elicits from the orchestra a full-bodied, visceral sound, not at all dampened by the largely covered pit (with its passarelle from the HELLO, DOLLY! set). From the moment the curtain goes up to the ominous resonance of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Overture, the audience knows it is in for a remarkable musical evening, and Sound Designer John Russell skillfully maximizes the acoustic effect.
The visual elements of the production are also lavishly realized even within the confines of having to use the main stage DOLLY set. Props Master Trevor Frederickson makes uses of some attractive draperies and minimalistic apple boxes to create a dynamic environment, while Annalise V. Caudle's lovely, color rich lighting palette evokes the emotional breadth of the songs. Katie Dowse's costumes are cleverly designed using simple black attire with blue accents that can be changed to reflect the varying moods of the pieces. Mickey Acton proves an unflappable Stage Manager, ably assisted by Molly Heil.
The youthful, eighteen-member cast is truly a group of stars in-the-making. In the best sense, this production is fashioned as an ensemble show, and some of the most memorable moments are those shared, such as the heart-warming, affirmatively beautiful "Love Changes Everything" from ASPECTS OF LOVE, led by Ben Walk-Dubay and Ayanna Stover or Sam Allen, Andrew Carney, and Diego Cortes' leading the company in a rousing "Light at the End of the Tunnel" from STARLIGHT EXPRESS.
But each of the performers has a chance to shine in special moments. Among the highlights: Jonathan Bryant's mysterious, mellifluous "Music of the Night," Alicia Babin's strong-voiced, steel willed Eva Peron in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," Michael Ivan Carrier's soulful, touching "Close Every Door" from JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, Mel Bills' heart-rending, nostalgic "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from SUNSET BULEVARD, or Diego Cortes, Collins Rush, and Nicholas Hall (with ensemble) in a hard-hitting "Oh, What a Circus" from EVITA. And the riches continue: Katie Brnjac's laser sure "Memory" from CATS, Liv Nurmi's powerfully voiced "With One Look" from SUNSET BOULEVARD, Natalie Nicole Bellamy's sultry "Buenos Aires" from EVITA, Nicole Fava and Andrew Carney in a perfectly paced "Tell Me on A Sunday" from the musical of the same title, Cameron Wright and Nicholas Hall in a sassy "Song of the King" (JOSEPH), and Ben Walker-Dubay, Collins Rush, and Robert Avery Wilson's rocking the hosue in "Starlight Express," while Siobhan Kelley adds voice and dance presence throughout.
The interplay of ensemble strength and solo charisma makes THE MUSIC OF Andrew Lloyd Webber simply stunning -the total musical theatre package at its best. And, indeed, that is an apt description for the Educational Fellowship Program at MSMT. Go to Broadway and you will see scores of the company's alumns lighting up the Great White Way. Come to Brunswick and you will understand why this prestigious training program is the hottest ticket for young artists on the national regional circuit and how it is a vital part of MSMT's lifeblood as a company.
Photo courtesy MSMT, Olivia Coe, photographer