BWW Review: The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Celebrates 50 Years with Jason Robert Brown, Lindsay Mendez, and More
The John F Kennedy Center's longstanding commitment to arts education was on full display Thursday night as the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) celebrated its 50th anniversary with a full-length concert of musical theater hosted by Harry Parker (Texas Christian University).
Accompanied by Musical Director Tommy Iafrate on piano, nine exceptionally talented Kennedy Center Musical Theatre fellows from across the country took center stage for the first half, making it clear that the future of American musical theater is in good hands. Local favorite, Helen Hayes award winner, and teaching artist (including for KCACTF) Tracy Lynn Olivera also shared two songs, essentially providing a mini masterclass in how to combine pristine vocals with emotionally engaging storytelling. Tony Award winners Jason Robert Brown and Lindsay Mendez shared their tremendous musical gifts in the second half, backed by Jason Robert Brown's band (Gary Segar on guitar, Randy Landau on bass, and Jamie Eblen on drums).
In an evening of so many highlights, it's challenging to pick just a few. Whether it was Emily Fleet's fierce rendition of "Kindergarten Boyfriend" (Heathers: The Musical) or Devin Bowles' take on "The Devil You Know" (Side Show) that rivaled many a professional performer, each of the nine musical theater fellows made their time in the spotlight count. A few such Zach Perrin and Luke Weber even bravely and most ably performed songs written by the evening's headliner Jason Robert Brown ("I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You," cut from The Last Five Years, and "It's Hard to Speak My Heart" from Parade). Tracy Lynn Olivera, whom the students were lucky to learn from this week, showcased a brilliant arrangement by another local theater talent William Yanesh. Let's just say "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis and "Another Hundred People" from Company fit together really well, especially when sung by the tremendously versatile Ms. Olivera.
Jason Robert Brown and special guest star Lindsay Mendez kept the momentum going in the second half.
Mr. Brown, at the piano of course, shared a selection of his songs - new and old - often regaling the audience with stories that explained what inspired him to write them, or how they came about. The bulk of the evening's selections appear on his latest album, How We React and How We Recover. Whether taking on a politically charged issue like gun control with "A Song About Your Gun," reflecting on taking his daughter to summer theater camp ("Hallowed Ground"), ruminating on life in New York City (a strong opener to, perhaps a future musical, "Melinda"), or performing a power anthem written for an eleven-year-old who just doesn't want to be "Invisible," Jason Robert Brown provided yet more evidence that he's a brilliant writer, a consummate performer, and (in my opinion) one of the writers for contemporary musical theater that's best equipped to use a song to tell a meaningful story in a musically interesting way.
He also shared a few selections from his musicals, including "It All Fades Away" from The Bridges of Madison County (for which he won two Tony Awards) and "I Love Betsy" (Honeymoon in Vegas). To say that he's versatile - both as a writer and a performer - is an understatement.
Lindsay Mendez, the very deserving recent Tony Award winner for her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, joined Mr. Brown onstage for a few numbers. Her comedic rendition of "I Can Do Better Than That" (The Last Five Years) was among the best I've heard. Another strong moment was her duet with Mr. Brown on "I'd Give it All For You" (Songs for a New World) and her emotionally poignant take on "All Things in Time," which appears on Brown's latest album. The concert ended on a high note as the nine musical theatre fellows joined Jason Robert Brown on "Wait 'Til You See What's Next."
Wait indeed. The future of musical theater is looking pretty bright.
An Evening With Jason Robert Brown, a celebration of KCACTF's 50th anniversary, took place on Thursday, April 18 at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Photo: Courtesy of Kennedy Center website.