35mm: A Musical Exhibition is referred to as a musical by the directors, but it is different from the way many think about the standard musical. The George Mason University School of Theatre and the Mason Players in collaboration with members of Mason’s Green Machine produced the performance, written by Ryan Scott Oliver, which first premiered at Galapagos Art Space in 2012. The performance opened this weekend in Harris Theatre at George Mason University and is billed as a multi-media experience. With lyrics and music by Oliver, it is based on the pictures projected upstage above the singers by photographer Matthew Murphy which were the inspiration for the songs.
Co-directors Angelica Miguel and Maxwell Snyder build their own through-line for the production which focuses on relationships’ loves and losses represented in the photos shown on a screen above the stage. As dramaturg Jeremy Schontz says, it isn’t a narrative book musical, but we see narratives in many of the songs. The experimental energy of this student-led production is fun, but it felt like a very interesting concert more than a theater piece. The singers were always in character, but none of the characters were as fleshed out as is usually found in musicals or dialogue-driven theater. The musical style is pop rock and the band lets loose on occasion. Unfortunately for the first few numbers, it was difficult to follow the lyrics, and hard to tell if this was due to an imbalance of instruments and singers or other factors.
One of the photos used was a mass of balloons on strings blocking the viewer from seeing the person carrying them and it accompanied “The Party Goes with You,” sung by Ashley Jorgensen. Her “boyfriend,” menacingly played by Garvey X. Dobbins, watches her sing, but dances, one-by-one, with the three other women who had also been listening to her. This couple plays the most dramatic story line of the evening, and the abusive characters’ relationship continues across other songs, such as “Leave Luanne.” Couples, and their relationships, were acted out during the songs, and the photos helped to propel the narratives, which were the connective focus of the musical.
Multiple photos showing the blurred outline of a man frozen in mid-air during an exuberant dance, were used for the song “Seraph.” The haunting piece is sung first by Dylan Toms, and then joined by others with lovely harmonies. Toms’s gorgeous voice was also accented by his vulnerable portrayal in a duet of “Twisted Teeth” with Chad Friedman. Physical expression of a song’s meaning was especially well shown by Keenan Gibson in the beautiful duet “Hemming and Hawing” with Rachel Sharp. Later, the same couple portrays their characters, as Stephanie Risch beautifully sings “Cut You a Piece.”
A gloriously harmonic a capella piece, “Good Lady,” was sung by the full cast, which included Rachel Sharp, Sophia Inserra, Kyle Donovan, and Chad Friedman, as well as those already listed. In a very different upbeat tempo, “The Ballad of Sara Berry” is also sung by the full cast close to the end, making one think of Lady Gaga’s take on Steven King’s prom thriller, Carrie. The corresponding photos of various women posing in a high school hallway were shown with red marker obscuring faces.
With the exception of the photos, the design of the show was minimal (no set designer) with a few blocks placed upstage center underneath the projection screen. Nine mics are in stands in a reverse semi-circle facing the audience, and during some songs a singer would stand on the blocks for a variation in levels. The seven-piece band was all on the right of the stage. Made up of members of Mason’s revered Green Machine, they sounded great. The talent is strong across the board for instrumentalists and singers, and their music deserves to be heard.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
35mm: A Musical Exhibition plays at Harris Theatre at George Mason University through February 18. Tickets are available at the door or online. The musical plays the following weekend at the Hylton Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA on February 23-24. Tickets are available online.