WoW’s NoW: Walking on Water’s New Original Works: a festival of new musical staged readings at the Cherry Artspace through Nov 20 (https://www.walkingonwaterproductions.org)
Artistic Director Priscilla Hummel describes WoW’s NoW as “a new program dedicated to discovering, exploring, and celebrating new works of musical theatre by New York State-based writers with Tompkins County artists and audiences.” From an open submission process three musicals were selected for further development; one of them will receive a full production in 2023. Live performances continue this weekend; streaming (24/7) is also available through November 20.
All three are chamber-sized and have been given loving attention by WoW, with separate directors and musical directors. While readings, they are well-rehearsed, vocally assured and enjoy strong casts.
Book & Lyrics by Jenny Stafford; Music & Lyrics by Scotty Arnold
Torn between stasis and flight, three people intersect at a motel somewhere/nowhere in Indiana. Owen (Paul Morgan) landed there five years ago, at the start of the pandemic and hasn’t left since. Emma (Lucy Purnine) has just taken a job there as she attempts to recover from her alcoholism, while Ethan (Jonah Hirst) is Owen’s childhood friend, constantly on the road filming his Instagram adventures, who stops in to check on Owen. Both men end up romancing Emma, an ex-school teacher and budding musician. Meanwhile salty Mrs. McGorty (Kristin Sad) runs the motel and is Emma’s sponsor.
Colorful characters, a well-structured book and a melodic score with roots in country and folk make for an engaging evening. Particularly strong are the opening song (“Crossroads of America”), Emma’s ‘original’ song (“This Ghost”) and an ensemble/plot song (“On My Arm”).
Sad has a field day with an essential comic, wry, wise woman role. As the reclusive Owen, Morgan is winsome and humorous, and oddly persuasive about sitting in one place. Hirst makes for a raffish Ethan in a pleasant baritone, and a spark of friction. Emma eventually becomes the center of the story, and Purnine has both an edginess and an appealing directness; her voice is perfectly suited to the haunting “This Ghost.”
If the set-up leans to the schematic (run versus hide), the book and songs play interesting variations, and the Epilogue suggests a shifting, hard-earned future for all, especially Emma.
Emily Jackson provides supple direction; Katherine Gould brings out the score’s various colors as music director while Em Ludek provides piano and guitar accompaniment.
Onward and Upward
Music & Book by Charlie Romano; Lyrics & Book by Will Wegner
Inspired by the true-life incident of the man who flew with balloons attached to a lawn chair, Onward & Upward imagines a fictional afterlife for this man (here named Walter) and his family.
Walter (Daniel Trippet) is all head in the clouds, tinkering in the garage with his next great invention, while his wife Helen (Grace Traore) keeps the family financially afloat a postal delivery person. Their son Mikey (Aidan Maloney) is beginning his senior high school year, adrift and friendless when he meets new transfer Maria (Grayson Rosenberg), several months pregnant. They begin a friendship/romance as her Aunt Chris (Elizabeth Seldin) inveigles Mikey into a suspect scheme cold-calling customers to sell them office supplies, a role Mikey blossoms in.
Walter has a fantasy hero, Philip Petit (Benjamin Stevens), the high-wire walker who traversed the Twin Towers among other feats. Petit encourages Walter’s anti-day job, just be free and creative desires. (Seldin and Stevens play a number of ancillary characters as well.)
The creators’ thematic material appears to be the tension between dreaming/innovating and surviving/pedestrian work time. Yet the story has a tragic tendency (Walter’s glory – his “upward” is well in the past) that the musical fails to structure or embrace. Two betrayals lead to the crises in the second act and more melodrama is unsuccessfully introduced at the conclusion.
There are some treasures in the ensemble songs that open and close both acts, and there is sophistication and beauty in the ethereal duets between Walter and Petit. The rest of the score has pedestrian lyrics and a sameness melodically, with a frequent recourse to reprises.
However, the WoW cast, under the direction of Karen Veaner and musical director Benjamin Stevens (accompaniment by Barbara Soroka), give Onward and Upward a strong showing. Trippet has a lovely baritenor to falsetto range put to the test by the score, while Stevens’s classically trained voice makes for a lilting, mesmerizing Petit. Trippet finds humor and warmth in the role, though he occasionally overplays.
Traore is a cool and convincing Helen, steady on her feet until knocked for a loop, registering the emotional shift. Rosenberg’s Maria is also strongly sung, as she teases and challenges Mikey. Seldin is a hoot as Aunt Chris, but more compelling in the small role of Helen’s mother. (The women tend to be underwritten.
The real find of the evening is Maloney, who is playing a character his own age. He has a deadpan comic delivery that completely matches the smart yet unfocused Mikey. His character has the heaviest lifting, undergoing lessons in unfairness which require a wounded vulnerability. Nailed. His voice has some rough edges (the range in his songs is very demanding) but pulse with hope, anger, anguish.
The musical is a mess, though a sometimes intriguing one.
Book & Lyrics by Gordon Leary, Music by Julia Meinwald
A score of scintillating melody, rhythms and harmony with deft lyric writing, something blue shows the polish of two collaborators who have an established working relationship.
The set-up is simple: forty hours until they walk the aisle, Joelle and Casey are under high stress as they juggle family, guests, the catering and events leading up to their vows, in a motel outside their small Ohio hometown.
The musical starts however with a solo by Geoff (“Night Drive”), who has at the last minute decided to drive hours to be at the wedding. Turns out he was invited, but didn’t RSVP. Simply hinted at originally, he is Casey’s ex.
Neither Joelle nor Casey are about young love (they aren’t) or torrid passion (though yearning is very much in play). They are about making a commitment to someone you look forward to waking up with. It’s a mature contemplation of all the ways one can gain and lose in this choice. Which inevitably brings up past choices.
I should add that the book & score also work in a strong sense of place (small town, close) with an overall sense of the liminal nature of nighttime.
The yearning becomes explicit in the soaring “The First Time You Kissed Me”, sung separately and together about Casey by his lovers. “I Want To” is Casey trying to win Joelle back after stumbling in the rehearsal dinner. Will they, won’t they, which they? could describe the night that follows (the exquisite “Night (Close Your Eyes)”).
Joelle is given a trio of songs pushing to the show’s climax, in which she grabs at her right to say no, the score becoming aggressive, the lyrics biting.
The outcomes are both hopeful and a touch melancholic.
The score and book are beautifully served by a superb cast. Seamus Buxton’s Geoff has a warm and open tone, and a delightfully bemused surface that doesn’t quite mask something not healed inside. As Casey, Paul Morgan sings with precision and lightness, a floating falsetto especially well deployed. He alternates between enthusiasm, confusion and earnestness in a well modulated portrayal.
Joelle is a plum role, and Hannah Avery goes to town with it. A lovely, lyrical soprano soars, hovers, or tightens to a more steely focus. Her nerves are frazzled to begin with, and the obstacles keep coming. Joelle is both thinker and doer and determined to make the right choice. And yet, ambivalence is as much her burden as it is for Geoff and Casey.
The reading is superbly rendered by director Sarah Plotkin and music director Jeremy Pletter, who also serves as accompanist.