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Posts Tagged ‘Joshua Salzman’

I’ve lost count of the number of four-hander chamber musicals set in New York City featuring twenty or thirty-somethings with complicated relationships. They’re sometimes light on story and often seem like song cycles, with great similarity to one another. This one is Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s 2011 follow-up to 2006’s successful I Love You Because. When I saw the UK premiere at the much missed Landor Theatre in 2013, I thought it was a cut above the rest and after this second viewing I felt the same.
Waverly is a wannabe actress with two jobs, one in a law firm and one in a bar. Her boyfriend Darren is a budding playwright. Waverly’s best friend Lisa is a singer, Darren’s ex before she came out, now looking for the right woman to start a new life with in LA. Luke is a playboy, immature and self-obsessed, determined to live life without ties. Through these four characters and their relationships, we explore the conflict between settling down and staying free, the careers we want and the ones we can get.
The strengths of the show are the development of the characters and the quality of the songs and lyrics. Director Robert McWhir, who also directed its UK premiere, as he did that of I Love You Because, has assembled an excellent young cast. Bessy Ewa navigates the roller-coaster ride of Waverley extremely well, Amelia Atherton is in fine voice as Lisa (both are 2020 graduates), Callum Henderson is earnest and charming as Darren and Nathan Shaw captures Luke’s freewheeling lifestyle.
The Garden Theatre has been given its own bar, where much of the action is centred, in David Shields excellent design, with Aaron Clingham on keys and guitarist Ashley Blasse on a platform that’s an integral part of the bar. It’s very well staged and I enjoyed it as much as I did the UK premiere seven years ago.

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The first of two visits this week to see graduating musical theatre students at two of London’s drama schools, and this first one an opportunity to catch something that seems to have passed me by when it was at the Landor Theatre seven years ago – or did it? These contemporary American chamber musicals are beginning to blur; they’re all set in New York City, with a handful of 20 or 30-something characters, they’re all about relationships and the scores are strikingly similar. At several points, I was thinking maybe I did see it at the Landor – or maybe I’m confusing it with composer / writer Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s other show, Next Thing You Know, at the Landor a year ago!

Austin and Marcy’s relationships have ended. Austin’s brother Jeff and Marcy’s friend Diana (who don’t know each other) encourage them to date again and they end up with each other, as do Jeff and Diana. Nice but dim Jeff, with a tendency to malapropism, and actuary (!) Diana start out with a simple uncomplicated affair. Greeting card ‘poet’ (!), deeply traditional Austin plays the longer settling down game, though he’s still not over his ex. A lot of it takes place in the local bar (Friends – the musical!) where the stereotypical NYC man and woman bar tenders (that’s what the characters are called) dispense sympathy and advice with the beer and shots, hiding their feelings for one another. Of course, it all ends happily – this is a fairytale of New York.

The score is very generic, perfectly acceptable but completely unmemorable. The show differentiates itself from others of the genre by it’s humour – not just funnier, but also spikier. This production is better in the acting than it is in the singing, with the cast, accompanied by two keyboards, often failing to rise to its vocal challenges (pitching and tuning issues, as they say in TV talent shows). I particularly liked the comic goofiness of Garmon Rhys as Jeff and the versatility and quirky charm of Douggie McMeekin in multiple roles as NYC man. This was the first performance, so I’m sure it will all become slicker as the week’s run progresses.

I think it’s time I gave this genre a wide berth though, lest I confuse similarity with senior moments.

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There seems to be an endless supply of contemporary American four-hander chamber musicals. They often feel more like song cycles. They usually feature people in their 20’s & 30’s with complicated relationships. They’re sometimes a bit too slick and sentimental. What makes this one a cut above is the quality of the music, lyrics, story and characterisation.

Waverley works in a bar but she wants to be an actress. Her boyfriend Darren works in an office but wants to be a writer. Waverley’s colleague Lisa has come to New York to get a girl and take her to California. Darren’s workmate Luke’s dad is a literary agent and Luke gets him to read Darren’s play. When Waverley & Darren break up she begins a relationship with Luke, but neither she nor Darren nor Luke know the connections. They’re all trying to find themselves and make their way in the world.

It’s a simple little story, but the characterisations are good and the book and lyrics are sharp. I loved the songs, which really do propel the story. The cast of four – Jennifer Potts, Bart Edwards, Amelia Cormack & Aaron Lee Lambert, all new to me – are all excellent and well matched (and sound great when harmonising). Michael Webborn’s acoustic band is lovely and subtle amplification ensures a good balance. Anna Michaels set is dominated by a superbly realistic NYC bar where much of the action takes place. Robert McWhir’s staging is up to his usual high standards.

Somehow I missed Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s other show I Love You Because, which I’ll hopefully have a chance to catch up with at some point. It’s only May, but this makes a 2013 hatrick of hit musicals for the Landor already.

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