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UCI Drama Presents New Musicals

<strong>COURTESY OF DR. GARY BUSBY</strong><br> UCI drama students star in the contemporary  musical “Aging Out”, part of the “Festival of New Musicals.”
UCI drama students star in the contemporary musical “Aging Out”, part of the “Festival of New Musicals.”

Spastic computer-generated avatars flew across the Winnifred Smith Hall’s stage one night. The next night, the cold foster care system was explored with deeply-felt songs. The weekend of Welcome Week was a bustling one for the UCI drama department, as two casts of energetic undergrads premiered two musicals as part of the “Festival of New Musicals.”

The drama department has been attempting for many years to highlight new work, so it’s no surprise to see this principle finally coming to fruition. The “Festival of New Musicals” presented fleshed-out readings of two brand new musicals – “e-$cape” (book by Scott Guy, music by Nick Degregorio) and “Aging Out” (book by Hillary Rollins and Tara Redepenning, music by Darin Goulet).

This festival was the brainchild of a newly formed alliance between UCI Drama and the Academy of New Musical Theatre. This alliance was first conceptualized about a year ago, when UCI’s Dr. Gary Busby and Scott Guy of the Academy of New Musical Theater (ANMT) were on the LA County Arts Grants Panel together; the two professors soon realized the potential that lay before them.

UCI has a large roster of talented musical theatre actors, while ANMT consistently turns out writers and composers. The need to collaborate was an obvious one to Busby and Guy.

The original plan was to put on staged readings of each piece, but as the rehearsal process went on, it was clear to both directors that the actors were working so hard, they needed more than a staged reading.

The first offering, “e-$cape,” was a story about Matthew Helber (played by fourth-year undergrad Taylor Stephenson) and his plan to make enough money to go to MIT by creating his own online video game world, a game similar to “Second Life.”

It was surprising to see so many references to technology and video game on a stage. I never expected pieces of modern technological culture like Second Life, Twitter and Facebook to all end up in the theatre, especially all at once. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see something so unique on the stage.

“e-$cape” had a rough start, with a sudden jump into a musical number that lacked adequate dialogue leading up to it. Despite this opening hiccup, the show finally started showing its potential as the story reached its climax.

Much of the show takes place in Matthew’s virtual life as a super soldier named Exothoptera, but the show’s peaks are at the points where it reveals its heart in the real life. These moments come between Matthew and his single mother Lynn.

Fourth-year drama student Kara Rooney had a fantastic performance as Lynn, one which added some easily accessible humor to the show. She gave the show some much-needed sincerity, lifting the show above about the base level of video games. Her solo song, “My Kroger Days,” was one of the best musical numbers in the show.

Grad student Paul Culos had a brief but memorable appearance as Brian Zyzzx. His comedy was phenomenal and left the audience wishing he had more than a ten-minute run in the show.

Anyone lucky enough to sneak a peak at the back of the stage got to see the piano playing and conducting, done by Dr. Busby himself. It was an absolute pleasure to watch him at work; his passion and intensity overflowed as he played the piano with his hands while conducting with his shoulders.

“Aging Out” was a complete turnaround from e-$cape. Made in the style of a contemporary rock musical, the tale of 13 kids growing out of the foster care system made a sharp contrast with the cyberpunk charm of “e-$cape.”

However, using this more traditional form of musical “Aging Out” sometimes teetered over the typical. Although the intricacies of the foster care system can be important and engaging, onstage, there are too many opportunities to land in cliché eye-rolling moments that are supposed to be inspirational.

While “Aging Out” tended to devolve into those moments in the second half, the first half was as intriguing as its premise allowed, introducing sympathetic characters and an engaging storyline.

The first act was also filled with musical crowd pleasers, such as the numbers “With the Band,” “Unless You’re Me” and “The Ones Nobody Wanted.” However, the musical numbers also started to wane in quality as the show progressed.

“Home for the Holidays,” where the company performed foster care versions of classic holiday carols, was easily the highlight of the entire festival; audience members were literally jumping for joy.

The show was a feel-good, coming-of-age story with the expected bit of tragedy sprinkled into it. What really brought it all together were the wonderfully natural performances of the cast. The cast chemistry could have been the result of the similar age group, or a particular connection between the actors and the characters. Whatever it was, it worked out well.

Overall, despite its shortcomings, the festival could be described in no way other than a success. The actors and design teams for both productions impressed the audience, and, with the unwavering dedication of the members of ANMT insured that both productions accomplished a lot in a short period of time.

The “Festival of New Musicals” was by no means perfect. It was inherently unfinished, experimental. There were kinks to work out in both shows, and moments where actors broke character, but moments like that make putting a show through an incubator fun.

Last spring, the drama department had flurry of new work, thanks in part to the student-run “World Premiere Weekend.” Hopefully, this festival is another sign of UCI Drama taking another step in the right direction.