The UNC School of the Arts has joined forces with No Rules Theatre Company to showcase the music of Stephen Schwartz in a production of Unlimited. Yet contrary to its name, the show – conceived by Matt Cowart and Joshua Morgan (Artistic Director of NRTC), with arrangements and orchestrations by Zak Sandler– is rather capped with its success.
No Rules Theatre Company – founded by UNCSA alumni Brian Sutow, Joshua Morgan, and Anne Kohn – was initially conceived while the three were still completing their training in the program. Since 2009 the company has expanded to Washington, DC, and has flourished with a dual-city program model that allows it to continue to produce theatre and programming in Winston-Salem. The company received the Helen Hayes Award for Best Emerging Theatre Company in 2011.
At first glance Unlimited has all the makings of an innovative, possibly edgy re-envisioning of composer Stephen Schwartz's sprawling collection of material. The stage – assembled only with musical accoutrements on platforms (drums, guitar, piano, etc), seemingly sporadic placement of stepladders, and a few black boxes dispersed – provided an element of rawness that refreshingly conveyed that this is not a standard musical theatre production. Yet sadly once the evening began all visual appeal could not compensate for the poor execution.
Constructed of roughly 20 musical numbers from several shows such as, Godspell, Pippin, Children of Eden, and Wicked, the production is essentially a musical revue with a loose storyline of non-specific characters. The cast of six – William Bednar, Rebecca Brinkley, Lindsay Alexander Carter, Nickolaus Gordon, Noah Reece, and Jasmine Stiefel – explore self-discovery, connection, and coming of age, all solely through an evolution of song.
Unfortunately – as with any musical revue or production that relies primarily on musical devices – if a consistent foundation of quality vocal performances is lacking, the overall success of the production will be in question. Unlimited suffers immensely from struggling and less-than-impressive vocal deliveries from the cast. In many instances the musical demands of Schwartz's songs appeared too cumbersome for the singers to undertake and therefore a few songs never reached their potential to impact the audience.
The number "Ain't it Good" from the musical Children of Eden, is heavily laced with Gospel influence, and should be rousing as it builds to a passionate climax but here fails accurately to convey any soul and becomes a caricature of gospel music instead of an experience of it. Several other numbers were equally anti-climatic and possibly too vocally ambitious. "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity" from Wicked are both very demanding numbers for even the most seasoned of performers, but in this production both were particularly off-pitch and strained.
To be fair there are a great many redeeming attributes that shine through. The number "Crowded Island" from Swartz's recording Reluctant Pilgrim is surely a charming highlight of the evening. There is also distinctive vocal triumph in songs such as "Corner of the Sky," "Simply Joys," and "Loathing." Acting is most evidently a strong point for the cast, and the performances of "Lost in the Wilderness" and "Meadowlark" are rich with depth and clear emotional intentions. Most notable of all is surely the highly talented group of musicians accompanying the singers on stage. The instrumentations are worthy of concert showcases exclusively.
Overall, the concept of showcasing the incredible music of Stephen Schwartz in such an interesting way is commendably a step in the right direction. Yet with a slew of underwhelming vocal performances, the potential of UNC School of the Arts' production of Unlimited, is well … limited.
The show will be repeated on November 15. For details, see the sidebar.