“Sing your song… be someone big on earth” is one of the centering lyrics that Tom Sweitzer sang in his one-actor, cabaret-like performance of Meatballs and Music on September 13 & 14, 2019 at Creative Cauldron.
Based upon Sweitzer’s own life, Meatballs and Music took the audience on an astonishing journey through a turbulent, colorful, utterly messy childhood.
Who is Tom Sweitzer? He is a music therapist, a writer, composer, and actor. He is Co-Founder, Creative Director, and Head of Music Therapy at A Place to Be, a nonprofit organization offering music therapy. Over the years, he has created several therapeutic musical productions that focus on acceptance, diversity, and empathy. These shows tour Northern Virginia schools. He is currently collaborating with Wolf Trap by developing an inclusive and disability focused production. Sweitzer noted in a pre-performance that his mission is to help people face, navigate, and overcome life’s challenges through music therapy.
Sweitzer’s Meatballs and Music is unapologetic as a theatrical production. It is a heartfelt evening about an individual dealing with incredibly harsh conditions growing up. The show also focuses on caring adults who provided hugs, guidance, and a hand in order for a bewildered young person to overcome a tough earlier life and become a success. The performance contained mature language that delivered the experience of hurt, anger, and abuse.
At the center of the play is a boy named Tom in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He is raised by a compassionate mother who loves to cook homemade meatballs. Although she loves her son unconditionally, she has diabetes and smokes way too much. His father, who left school in the second grade, was later diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Home life is not easy.
Across the street from his unhappy home life is a church with lovely music coming from the window. When the church doors open, Tom meets a Sunday school teacher who changes his life.
Directed with a warm touch by Matt Conner, Sweitzer’s performance is a wonder. As the character of Tom in Meatballs and Music, Sweitzer played a myriad of ages. He also portrayed his parents not as paper cut outs but with authentic dimensions. Some dimensions are not easy to witness as theater.
Sweitzer also takes on an enchanting assortment of childhood friends at all ages and of all genders. More so, Sweitzer presents several female characters including a childhood neighbor/first crush and two adults who made a vast difference in his life. When he wraps a silky scarf around his neck “to present” as an urbane female artistic director, he has her right before the audience as a genuine hoot of a presence with hand gestures, a squint of the eyes, and a loosening of his body appearance.
Meatballs and Music is not just heavy drama. Far from it. There was plenty of enjoyable humor as the foibles of human beings of many ages are winningly presented. Swetizer’s musical interludes at the piano with musical underpinnings by Drew Weylin Beavers include lovely renderings of iconic music of faith such as “Amazing Grace.”
No credit is provided for the stage design which is authentic in its fine details of a cramped and cluttered environment. The design elements provide for visual intimacy as the show’s setting moves from “location-to-location.” There is a fine use of a large monitor as a backdrop to add personal touches to the production. Lighting by Lynn Joslin, film work by Manuel Vasquez, sound by Kyle Boardman along with animation by Thom Shaw, Erin Shaw, and Phoebe Shaw are sunny additions to the overall audience experience.
Sweitzer’s Meatballs and Music was a dramatically presented therapeutic study guide into the concept of personal resilience. But to reach audiences beyond those already interested in the subject, some fine-tuning of the script might be considered. Perhaps a reduction of details about earlier life events with additional details about his adult life. For example, a character named Vivian is introduced late into the production and seems ripe for more of a spotlight. And for general theater audiences, a coda-like conclusion to the performance may seem more to bring notice to a particular therapeutic organization that might have been accomplished in a different manner.
However, Meatballs and Music was an eye-opening cabaret and a very worthy evening of theater, an odyssey into a life rarely seen on a live theater stage. It was a theatrically well-presented case study into how caring and supportive relationships within and outside a family in constant crisis can help overcome the odds.
As the full-house audience at the Creative Cauldron began to file out after Meatballs and Music, many stopped to provide animated hugs and genuine words of encouragement to Sweitzer. They had clearly been moved by the performance.
Running time: About 100 minutes no intermission