Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: 35MM: A MUSICAL EXHIBITION Masters the Art of Capturing Moments

Dana Shaw and Katherine Washington, Photos by Daniel J. Sliwa

No one writes a story song like composer Ryan Scott Oliver. Known for his clever lyrics and the ability to create in a wide variety of musical styles, his is an exciting voice in the current musical theatre landscape. Broadway insiders marvel at the way he plays with musical language and captures a point of view that never fails to resonate deeply with the listener. It’s no wonder the Pasadena native has already received a Richard Rodgers Award, a Jonathan Larson Grant, and a Lucille Lortel nomination.

His song cycle 35mm: A Musical Exhibition is a wonderfully rich and crazy illustration now on stage at The Complex in a sleek collaborative production by The Unknown Artists. 7 cast members and 8 directors bring 16 different compositions to life in this 80-minute exploration that navigates the tricky waters of love and life.

Each sequence pairs a song by Oliver with a series of still photographs by former American Ballet Theatre member turned photographer, Matthew Murphy. The result is a constantly shifting living work of art that runs the gamut from light and breezy to wickedly funny to gut-wrenchingly poignant. To say there is something for everyone is an understatement.

This collection of snapshots is all about focus. What happens when you “Stop Time” long enough to notice the full picture of what is happening in a moment? Who are these people…to each other, to themselves, to the world around them? By blending images, sound, and story in a new way, the creators direct our attention to how much fullness exists in a single moment of time.

The finest of the straight ahead comedy songs is “Caralee” directed by John Ross Clark and sung by Cody Clark. In it, a young “manny” is at the end of his rope taking care of a toddler with no boundaries. He’s certain the child is Satan. Mesmerizing photographs of dismembered doll heads hang above the hilarious scene adding a wicked subtext.

“Make Me Happy” reveals a different kind of funny by pairing a smart, cynical lyric with a bright up-tempo beat in which Emily Clark [left] and Jeff Scot Carey (who also directs the scene) reveal feelings that are nothing like they show each other on the surface. In the accompanying photos, a couple walks along a yellow fence holding paddles with smiley faces in front of their own while photos of clouds drift by in the background. Irony abounds. (Note - beginning March 4, Nate Parker takes over Carey’s track)

The company has a thorough understanding of the way Oliver blends contrasting ideas in his songs which helps make this a vividly entertaining evening. The disjointed yet infectious melody and harmonies of “Immaculate Deception,” and its evocative lyric about making art from pain, is distinctively staged by Emily Clark to reveal the nuances of its jab at commercialism, while CrazyTown, directed by Clark and Meghan Allison, is full of percussive machine-like movements and sounds accompanied by photos of random body parts.

Regret gets its due in the ballad “The Party Goes with You” staged by John Ross Clark for Emily and Carey. Even the transitions between pieces factor into the storytelling.
Some of the moments are beautiful in their simplicity, like “The Seraph.” Here Carey [right] accompanies himself on guitar and sings a folk song to the angelic presence that watches over him, the man he is blessed to love, with Vincent Perez singing harmony. It is a lovely lyric set to a simple melody with a beautiful vocal blend.

The most dramatic piece is “Leave Luanne,” a compelling story that tackles domestic violence down on the bayou, impressively directed by Amy Bartlett. Murphy’s image of a deer’s head with a man’s arms extending out from under it eerily sets the tone while the juxtaposition of Katherine Washington playing a haunting melody on the violin and the song’s piercing subject matter do a deadly dance. This powerful tale comes with a great story twist. You’ll hear the trickling change in the music when it happens and it makes for one of the most completely satisfying revenge stories ever. Bartlett also goes for the gut with her direction of “Cut You a Piece” delivering another powerful message about the nature of love and devastation of loss. This one is a showpiece for Perez.

Modern rock takes over in “Why Must We Tell Them Why?” a driving up-tempo ensemble number energetically directed by Allie Costa, and in the vampire tale “Twisted Teeth,” abstract steamy red photographs seem to pulse with the beat as Washington and Perez seductively dance. This story, too, isn’t quite what it seems. The twist here comes in the final moments of the piece and director Kate Purnell stages the aha moment with a wink. 

Saving the best for last, Dana Shaw kills on “The Ballad of Sara Berry” another terrific rock number about a high school cheerleader who finds a creative way to eliminate her competition for Prom Queen. Shaw may have a girl-next-door face but she can wail like a demon on the high notes with a bright musical theatre belt that gives her Sara Berry a great rocker edge. This is one of Oliver’s songs that always ends up a showstopper and it makes a great finale for 35mm before the final show wrap-up.

If you aren’t familiar with Ryan Scott Olivers music, youre missing out. This is an artful evening of rich, sexy, smart songs delivered by a capable cast and a high-powered band. Do yourself a favor and go.

The cast of 35mm

The Unknown Artists
February 26 - March 19, 2016
Dorie Theatre at The Complex
6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm
Click Here for tickets

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