A George Mason University music review celebrates underrepresented voices

In memory of Darius Smith, students sing works by artists who broke down barriers.

Give yourself a musical boost and some warm inspiration for these stormy days.  Add plenty of deeply appreciated civility during an unsettled period. These might seem hard to find, but if 2020 has you feeling undone, I have something for you. It is the streaming production of often overlooked musical gems entitled Gaining Ground: A Celebration of Diverse Voices of Musical Theater performed by The Mason Players, students from the George Mason University College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Heartfelt without artifice, utterly lovely and honest, the Gaining Ground musical revue is full of energy and determination to entertain and educate. Its focus is on voices and identities traditionally underrepresented on our American musical stages: BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ. 

The production was conceived and directed by James Gardiner and Erin Gardiner with musical direction by Joe Walsh.  

In a recent email conversation, James Gardiner explained the impetus for Gaining Ground: “This summer, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery became a rallying cry to confront the racist systems that plague our country. It was important to the School of Theater that we add our voices to this important conversation, and we felt the urgency from our students as well. The American theater is currently dealing with its own reckoning centered around inequality. Too often doors are closed to diverse voices in the musical theater, especially composers of color and female composers. We wanted to highlight artists that broke down barriers and some of the talented voices that are just breaking through now.”

Gaining Ground is dedicated to the memory of Darius Smith, well known throughout the DMV theater community for his work as a music director, composer, lyricist, and author. As the program noted, Smith was “a gifted composer and lyricist who served as one of the first musical directors of Mason Cabaret. In 2019, Darius Smith passed away suddenly at the age of 36. His work is represented within the program and we hope offers a glimpse of his monumental talent.”  

In a smoothly produced video (kudos to the entire production crew led by Production Manager Ruth Yamamoto), Gaining Ground presents nine vastly different musical numbers sung by 20 glowing voices who have a genuine, winning way with harmony across the digital universe. The Gaining Ground video is fun to watch with lots of interesting visual movement. It is not a static “stand-and-deliver” event.

 

From upper left: Bianca Peña, Darren Badley, Liz Jacobsen, Natalie Cumming, Walker Vlahos, Sophia Inserra, Brandon Morris, Gillian Rydholm, Erin Pugh, Steven Franco, Cristina Casais, Jessica Barraclough, Erin Cleary, Grace McNamee, Hasan Crawford, Tony Lemus, Drake Leach, Makayla Collins, Deema Turkomani, Annie Graninger.

The fine Mason Player voices include those of Darren Badley, Jessica Barraclough, Cristina Casais, Erin Cleary, Makayla Collins, Hasan Crawford, Natalie Cumming, Steven Franco, Annie Graninger, Sophia Inserra, Liz Jacobsen, Drake Leach, Tony Lemus, Grace McNamee, Brandon Morris, Bianca Peña, Erin Pugh, Gillian Rydholm, Deema Turkomani, and Walker Vlahos. Each presents their singing without artifact or overt acting. They feel what they sing and as a viewer, I was appreciative of how each found a way to pull me into the song, the lyrics, and their performances. Is charming a bad word to use?

The Gaining Ground ensemble is accompanied by Joe Walsh on piano and keyboard, Michael Barranco on drums, with electric and string Bass from Brian Bera.

Each of the nine songs is confidently introduced by one of the ensemble members.  The introductions include background regarding why a particular song was selected from the hundreds of musicals that have been produced over the last century.  Singly and together, the introductions provide a rich, though sad, history. Each song has a history we should know.

Everybody Rejoice: A Brand New Day from The Wiz
Music and lyrics by Luther Vandross
Performed by the Company

Lemme Be on the Wrestling Team from U.G.L.Y.
Music and lyrics by Darius Smith
Performed by Darren Badley, Makayla Collins, Hasan Crawford, Natalie Cumming, Drake Leach, Tony Lemus, Grace McNamee, and Deema Turkomani

Secretly Hoping
Music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson
Performed by Annie Graininger

 Soft Place to Land from Waitress
Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Performed by Jessica Barraclough, Erin Pugh, Liz Jacobsen

Dear Theodosia from the musical Hamilton
By Lin-Manuel Miranda
Performed by Tony Lemus and Steven Franco

I Wish I Could Go Back to College from Avenue Q
Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Performed by Darren Badley, Erin Cleary, Hasan Crawford, Natalie Cumming, Drake Leach, and Walker Vlahos

See Me Now from Better than Dreaming
Music by Joy Son and lyrics by Alan Gordon
Performed by Liz Jacobsen and Sophia Inserra

If I Could Have Been from Working
Music and lyrics by Micki Grant
Performed by the Company

Learning to Let Go from Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens
Music by Janet Hood and lyrics by Bill Russell
Performed by the Company

Gaining Ground invites a viewer to question aplenty; to examine what voices, perspectives, and stories have been marginalized over the decades on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and on regional stages. Marginalized, but now being heard courtesy of the Mason Players. 

Gaining Ground might renew your faith in humanity and the value of musical theater to entertain and educate. It certainly did for me. As one of the lyrics from Brand New Day suggests, find a “different way to living now.”

Running time: About 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Gaining Ground: A Celebration of Diverse Voices of Musical Theater is streaming free on YouTubeAnd the Gaining Ground program is available for download here. 

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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