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Hot Summer Nights' World Premiere of Jeremy Schonfeld's Drift Is Audacious

September 13, 2009 - Wilson, NC:


The world premiere of Brooklyn singer/songwriter Jeremy Schonfeld’s audacious new autobiographical concert musical Drift, based on his concept album and buoyantly staged by Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy producer and director Lauren Kennedy and choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis, is an audience’s dream and a critic’s nightmare. Five men and three women — all exceptional vocalists — make beautiful music together. They share lead vocals — two, three, four or more of them per song — as they sing 21 selections (counting reprises) while a dazzling array of video clips and color slides flash by, providing rapid-fire impressions of the big city that forms a gritty, graffiti-ed backdrop to this splendid song cycle.

The result, for the audience, is 77 minutes of marvelous musical numbers — 21 songs sung one after another, without an intermission and with no dialogue to flesh out the characters. The result, for the theater critic, is eight pages of often indecipherable scrawl, guessing at the song titles, trying to jot down who sings what and which songs include noteworthy instrumental solos, and noting which songs made the strongest impressions on the theatergoers and on yours truly.

Schonfeld’s painful marital breakup, which inspired Drift the album and Drift the concert musical, leaves his fictional alter ego, David (played with fire in his eyes by Christian Campbell), angry and increasingly adrift and alone — minus his lovely soon-to-be ex-wife Laura (the multitalented Andrea Schulz Twiss) and daughter — floating on a sea of sad memories about what was and is no more.

Campbell and Twiss are terrific as the unlucky couple. His wistful return visit to their now empty apartment (“This Was Our House”) and her defiant declaration of independence (“Three Tall Women”) number among the show’s dramatic highlights. Comedy high points include “Dr. Schneider,” whose therapy group includes David and four other angry, resentful soon-to-be former husbands played by Dave Barrus, Sean Jenness, Gregory Dale Sanders, and Melvin Tunstall III. Michelle Kinney and Yolanda Rabun play a pair of gals that frequent the bar to which the guys retire for “Drink Interlude 1 & 2” after Dr. Schneider gets them to bare their souls in group therapy.

Melvin Tunstall as Peter is a sleek ladies’ man, but Gregory Sanders as Justin is a zero with the ladies and his awkward fumbling provides much of the musical’s comic relief. Dave Barrus as the white-collar Thomas and Sean Jenness as the blue-collar Mike both have smoldering resentments that threaten to erupt into flame at any moment. Yolanda Rabun as Jane is a sultry songstress, and Michelle Kinney as Sarah is a girl who likes to run with the wolves, even after their vengeful soon-to-be ex-wives have put big dents in their gargantuan egos.

Drift composer, lyricist, and librettist and musical director Jeremy Schonfeld (keyboards), associate musical director Julie Bradley (keyboards), Drew Lyle (guitar and banjo), John Simonet (bass), and Todd Proctor (drums) put plenty of snap, crackle, and pop into Schonfeld’s soulful score. Set and lighting designer Chris Bernier and projection designer Vincent Marini transform the panels of their minimalist set into a versatile series of projection screens on which snippets of video and slides make the characters’ flashbacks especially vivid. Costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson skillfully accentuates the characters’ personality traits with their outfits. But sound designers Leanne Norton Heintz and Phil Valera struggled all evening, last Sunday night, to keep the show’s dynamic musical accompaniment from drowning out vocal passages.

On the plus side, Drift features some splendid breakup songs, an ingenious set design and eye-catching multimedia projections, and nifty musical staging. On the minus side, there is far too little background on what caused David and Laura to split up — we never get a strong sense of who they were when they were together and who they are now that they’ve gone their separate ways — and the secondary characters are all so sketchy that it is impossible to tell exactly why they are on Lonely Street with Laura and David. More detail would add depth, and make Drift even more entertaining for audience and critic alike; and a song list in the program would be a big plus, too.

Drift will continue September 16-20 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College in Wilson before moving to the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh for September 23-27. For details, see our theatre  calendar.