Having Composer Stephen Schwartz in the audience last night really pumped up the talented young cast of singers and musicians at Opening Night of the premiere of the new-and-improved Unlimited: The Music and Lyrics of Stephen Schwartz at Catholic University’s intimate Ward Recital Hall
Unlimited was conceived by No Rules Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Joshua Morgan, Matt Cowart, and Zak Sandler, and is co-presented by the Musical Theatre Division of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music and No Rules Theatre Company. Last year, a version of Unlimited was performed at the University of North Carolina School of the Art. For this new and improved premiere new songs were added, and some taken out from last Fall’s production.
Unlimited features songs from Composer and Lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Songbook, and there’s a lot to choose from. The new revue is directed and choreographed by Sally Boyett and has excellent musical direction from CUA alumni Marc Bryan Lilley, and a group of exceptional musicians.
Schwartz has composed the music and lyrics for Pippin, Rags, The Baker’s Wife, Godspell, The Magic Show, and the very popular Wicked. Also included are songs whose lyrics he composed for the films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted, and some songs not so well known like “Crowded Island” from Reluctant Pilgrim and :Aint It Good’ from my favorite Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden.
There is a winding theme of growing up, self-discovery, lessons you learn while trying to sustain a relationship. No Rules Theatre Company’s Joshua Morgan says, “Come explore Unlimited, a journey of coming of age and trying to find one’s place in the world, as told through the songs of this celebrated composer. Schwartz’s music and lyrics will bring you face to face with the vibrancy and vitality of youth and the potential that lies within each of us as we leave the safety of home and go out into the world.” And being a fan of Stephen Schwartz’s music which has taught me valuable lessons on how to cope with change and difficult times, I am thrilled that this revue will be seen by and include younger performers and younger audiences who will learn about the beauty and life-affirming lessons that define Stephen Schwartz’s work.
The exceptional group of singers who comprise the new production are talented singers/actors whose work I have been fortunate to see and write about and honor. All attend Catholic University: Hasani Allen, Erica Clare, Nicole Elledge, Brian McNally, Harrison Smith, and Allison Verfhofstadt have so much talent and, I believe, that they will have fruitful careers on the stage, so I was thrilled that Stephen Schwartz could see them ‘in action.’
What I was impressed most last night was that Director Sally Boyette played to everyone’s strengths-singing and acting and personality- when she assigned the songs.
Here are my favorite highlights:
The overture really set the mood as it reminded the audience of that unique style and sound of Stephen’s work.
“The Spark of Creation,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was beautifully delivered by Allison Verhofstadt, Hasani Allen, Nicki Elledge, Brian McNally, Harrison Smith, and Erica Clare. It introduced the cast,and their unique personalities, and immediately told us that we were in for a real treat.
Harrison Smith’s heartfelt rendition of “Out There,” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I am a big fan of Harrison’s work because he understands what a song is all about-he always knows that each lyric was carefully written and that each word tells the story, and here, he sold the anguish and enthusiasm of the character who yearns to be ‘normal’ and ‘out there’ living a normal life like everyone else. And he didn’t have to ‘American Idolize’ the song and shout it out; he alternated between soft and enthusiastic, and we saw the whole character whose life has has its ups and downs filled with so many different emotions.
One of the reasons I love Stephen Schwartz’s music is because he has written so many ballads and songs that can be sung softly – whose messages and lessons speak loud and clear. And Harrison accomplished this so well.
Making Good/No Time At All/ Beautiful City
“Making Good” was the first song Stephen wrote for Wicked and it spun into “The Wizard and I.” “No Time at All” is the crowd-pleaser ‘audience sing-along’ from Pippin, and “Beautiful City” is from Godspell.
Here Zak Sandler’s innovative arrangement and beautiful orchestration was not an easy one to sing and Brian McNally, Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, Allison Verhofstadt, Erica Clare, and Nicki Elledge faced the challenge head-on and did a splendid job with the overlapping melodies, lyrics, and harmonies. And putting together these three songs which I adore-well- it was a joy to hear all of them sung together at the same time.
Crowded Island is a charming song from Reluctant Pilgrim and Brian McNally’s bubbly personality was perfect for the song and his sweet voice sold its humor. Another ‘quiet’ rendition allowed everyone to hear the brilliant lyrics and the lovely melody.
“Wings of A Swan” is a song from My Fairy Tale, or Mit Eventyr, a musical that was commissioned for a Hans Christian Andersen celebration in 2005. I will be honest, I never heard of it and Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, Featuring Nicki Elledge, and Erica Clare made me an instant fan of it with their heartfelt rendition.
Nicky Eldredge performed the very vocally challenging “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife. I have heard so many cabaret artists shriek their brains out trying to hit all the high notes while performing this long and beautiful and vocally challenging song, and Nicki was ‘cool-as-a cucumber.’ I’ve never seen anything like it. She sold each and every brilliant lyric as she glided up and down the scales with ease. It was simply gorgeous and a tour de force.
“Blame It On The Summer Night” from Rags. Erica Clare and Allison Verhofstadt reconfirmed that this is one of the most beautiful songs Stephen has ever written. I was fortunate to see Rags twice on Broadway during its short run and again in a ‘small’ production at The American Jewish Theatre. I really believe that Rags will be resurrected one day and will be performed by schools and universities and theatres everywhere. It’s a hidden treasure and Erca and Allison’s performance reminded me why.
“Since I Gave My Heart Away”a song from the made-for-TV Gepetto was lovingly sung by Erica Clare, Nicki Elledge, Brian McNally, and Hasani Allen. The sung really moved me. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies written by Stephen Schwartz and I was so glad it was remembered by the creators of this revue and added to its songlist.
In Whatever Time We Have” from Children of Eden featured Allison Verhofstadt, Brian McNally and joined in by the cast. My favorite Stephen Schwarts ‘duet’ and sung with so much heart. I wiped away a couple of tears after this one was over.
Since Unlimited is a work in progress let me suggest this: less over-emoting and over-singing. And I really didn’t like the “Popular” running joke schtick.
With this talented cast and those songs – and like the genius and songs of the great Stephen Schwartz – the possibilities are unlimited. I can’t wait to see what’s next for this beautiful revue and for these six talented singers..
[A note: Stephen Schwartz came down from New York to inspire thee young singers and musicians and to see how the show was doing. He is the most gracious and caring composer I know. After the show was over he met with the cast and director and co-creators and congratulated them, made some suggestions – and most of all – their lives were changed by his kind and encouraging words. He is such a mensch and it was such an honor to say hello to him and to hear his work lovingly performed last night].
Unlimited plays tonight, February 21, 2015, at 7:30 PM at The Catholic University’s Ward Recital Hall – 620 Michigan Avenue NE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are $30 for general admission; $15 for CUA alumni, faculty, staff, and seniors; and $10 for students. Other performances are tomorrow, Sunday, February 22nd at 2 PM, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, February 26-28th at 7:30 PM. For tickets, call (202) 319-5416, buy them at the door, or online.