BWW Review: Theater Bug's SHOWMANCE is The Timeless Musical for Theater People of All Ages
Cori Anne Laemmel continues to do amazing things at The Theater Bug - whether it's creating new and compelling art, engaging in revealing collaborations with other creative individuals, or, more importantly, providing a safe space for a new generation of young theater artists eager to transform their own lives through self-expression - and there is absolutely no reason to believe that she's anywhere near a stopping point. And, because of her sincere endeavors to give back in much the same way her own life has been enriched by theater, Nashville directors may rest assured that the bench of skilled and capable actors willing (yearning!) to take to the stage for years to come is indeed very deep.
These facts - and make no mistake about it, this isn't fulsome exaggeration or laudatory praise, but rather intense and demonstrative reality - are borne out once again in Showmance, the latest original musical from Laemmel and her frequent co-conspirators in all things theatrical, Eric Fritsch and Laura Matula. Actually, 2019's Showmance is a revival of the show that first premiered in 2016 as a presentation of Studio Tenn in partnership with The Theater Bug.
Described as "a love letter to finding where you belong in and out of the spotlight" by Laemmel, Showmance is a warmly welcoming, oftentimes raucously funny and consistently heartfelt and inclusive evocation of all those times someone has searched for their tribe in a harried world, only to find their people bustling about backstage, running lines and rehearsing songs, learning blocking and memorizing dialogue in anticipation of an opening night. While the characters of Showmance are under 18 (just like the legions of young performers who've been lucky enough to find their creative voices at The Theater Bug itself), their stories are universal and there is so much about the show to love and embrace regardless of one's age or even if you've never set foot onstage in your own life.
Rather, Showmance is a thoroughly engaging and downright inspiring night of theater that will appeal to anyone. It really is as good as you've heard and it is brought to life by a cadre of young actors who are certain to become household names if not immediately, then more assuredly in the not-so-distant future.
Shining her estimable spotlight on "theater nerds," Laemmel gathers her company together (there are two casts of performers who perform the show on alternating weekends, with a third weekend during which each cast will deliver their final performances) to bring her larger-than-life Valentine to theater to life with vivid intensity and emotional gravitas. These actors may be young, but their hearts are ageless and their storytelling abilities are timeless. Laemmel provides the book and lyrics for the original musical (which never sounds derivative or hackneyed, instead coming off as vibrantly fresh), with Fritsch supplying the totally memorable score. Two new songs by Laemmel and Matula ("Left Hand Man," performed with showstopping zeal by Juan Graterol of the Stage Left Cast, and "Stand Out") are interpolated into the original score for the show's current iteration to offer audiences who saw the show's original production something new and exciting for which to look during a return visit this summer.
The story focuses on a retinue of theater nerds who gather together for a summer of fun onstage to bring a new show called Sleeps With Fishes (a musicalization of The Godfather - yep, it's as groanworthy and awesome as it sounds, I assure you) to the stage. Never content to rely upon expected theatrical tropes or stereotypes, Laemmel and Fritsch bring a cavalcade of intriguing young characters to the fore, giving each an opportunity to tell their stories while exploring their options - if only we'd all had a Theater Bug or a Cori Laemmel in our lives while growing up...
Central to the story of Showmance are three budding young actors, each of whom is seeking to define who they are at a time in their lives when such a journey is fraught with turmoil and unease: Charlotte (played by Hannah Trauscht), Henry (Kevin Rome) and Betsy (Laura Carpenter). The trio of principals deliver emotionally driven, altogether authentic performances with which anyone may identify and, in doing so, reveal so much of themselves in the process.
Trauscht, Rome and Carpenter don't so much dominate the stage as command it, providing leadership throughout the two hours of theatrical cavorting and onstage/offstage hijinks that transpire. They are joined in the riotous journey by some of the best young actors you'll find anywhere, including Micah Williams and Kari Belle King who very nearly cart the whole production off with their splendid interpretations of their spirited characters; a trio of "mean girls," led by the deliciously divaesque Ayla Williams and her terrific sidekicks Alex Anne Rogers and Ava Gregory; and such backstage types as Wyatt Rogers as "Intern Ted" (whose real name is Clive) and Shelby Jones as the clarion-voiced producer who virtually stops the show with her standout vocals. And then there's Criswell Pruitt, who proves that major talent can come wrapped in a pint-sized package and who delivers a performance that's as delightful as it is unexpected.
And they, gentle readers, are just a handful of the tremendously talented individuals gathered together to create art and have a grand time onstage and in the spotlight. The company is as inspiring as anyone might have hoped for - thanks to the care and attention of Laemmel, Fritsch, Matula (who doubles as music director), Bakari Jamal King (who, as choreographer, supplies the energetic movement), assistant director Anastasia Teel (who grew up at The Theater Bug herself before moving on to her own auspicious career) and the numerous artists and technicians who bring Showmance to full and immersive life onstage every night.
Matt Logan designs the wonderfully detailed and visually appealing set, with Melodie Madden Adams' gorgeous costumes clothing her cast in fine style and with dazzling good taste. Tyson Laemmel's lighting illuminates the proceedings with finesse and Steve Rhyne's sound design ensures all the dialogue, all the lyrics and all the music are ideally balanced and, more importantly, heard.
Nicole Yraguen leads the five-member band as they play Fritsch's score with professional ease, with Kelsi Fulton, Brad Williamson, Larry O'Brien and Joshua Dent in the pit.
Which brings us back to Cori Anne Laemmel: she is a Nashville - no, make that "a national" - treasure and the work she's doing here is startling, unique and auspicious. Looking for progressive theater in Music City? Go to The Theater Bug and witness theatrical history being made every day of the week. You'll realize we are in very good hands.
Showmance. Book and lyrics by Cori Anne Laemmel. Music by Cori Anne Laemmel and Eric Fritsch. 2019 musical additions by Cori Anne Laemmel and Laura Matula. Directed by Cori Anne Laemmel. Musical direction by Laura Matula. Choreography by Bakari Jamal King. Presented by The Theater Bug, Nashville. Through August 10. For more information, go to www.thetheaterbug.org. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).
photos by MA2LA