The Austin Chronicle

Not Your Father's Musical (Or Your Kid's, For That Matter)

Three local shows show breaking into song ain't what it used to be

By Robert Faires, August 13, 2004, Arts

Time was, stage musicals meant big budgets, fluffy romantic plots, brassy show tunes by name-brand Broadway composers, spectacular dances, and scores of chorines. That, as the saying goes, was then. Nowadays, a musical is as likely to be an intimate chamber piece with a dramatic storyline (if it has a storyline; revues are all the rage) and, in place of those block-long chorus lines, quartets, duos, even solo artists performing songs drawn from various sources: pop radio, art music, or the local singer/songwriter scene. Three local productions opening this week show just how far musicals have come since the Golden Age of Broadway – and how big a show can be created with relatively little.

In 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Musical, Rob Nash continues the adventures of his perpetually unsettled Smith clan, but with the addition of sisters Windsong and Margot, Margot's kids Ashley and Matt, grandma Mildred, and uncle Fred periodically breaking into song. As with his other theatrical projects, Nash performs solo, so he's set himself the challenge not simply of singing onstage but singing in the voices of these different characters. Where Nash isn't alone is in the composition department; he's employed the services of three local composers: Vortex Repertory Company regulars Chad Salvata (The X and Y Trilogy, Pythia Dust) and Edmund Pantuliano (The Music of Erica Zann) and country swing veteran Johnny Edson (A Man's Gotta Eat, A Spread Misére, Hobnobbin' With the Hoi Polloi).

Singer/actress Catherine Berry is also going the solo route on Spin, which she's calling an inverted musical – inverted because she first selected songs she wanted to sing, then invited playwrights to pen the text to go with them. After loading up with musical diamonds by Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Jacques Brel, and Johnny Mercer, plus a few sparkling gems from such singer-songwriters as Shelby Lynne, Amy Rigby, Lee Ann Westover, David Hamburger, and her own self, Berry turned to a glittering array of Austin's most gifted dramatists past and present – Cyndi Williams, John Walch, Jessica Hedrick, Jennifer Haley, David Gunderson, Lisa D'Amour, Katherine Catmull, and brother Ron Berry – each of whom created an original character and monologue to accompany a song.

The KidsActing musical The Velveteen Rabbit was developed using a similar approach. The script was adapted from Margery Williams' beloved children's book with the idea that certain types of song would go in certain places. Then Dede Clark would contact a songwriter, give that person a script, a song title, and the gist of what needed to be conveyed in the song, and turn them loose. The result is a homegrown family show with new songs by Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, Butch Hancock, Ray Benson, Eliza Gilkyson, Joe Scruggs, and Robert "Beto" Skiles adding to the fun. When it was first produced in 1990, the show sold out all 26 performances at Capitol City Playhouse. Just goes to show that you don't necessarily need an army of high-kicking showgirls to make a musical a hit. end story

The Velveteen Rabbit runs Aug. 13-21 at the Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's Episcopal School, 2900 Bunny Run. For more information, call 458-KIDS.

12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Musical runs Aug. 13-29 at The Vortex, 2307 Manor. For more information, call 478-LAVA.

Spin runs Aug. 19-Sept. 4 at The Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale. For more information, call 927-1118.

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