It’s now been a little over a year since the Broadway shutdown, one of the most sensational downsides of the drastic COVID-19 pandemic. Critics and fans alike have since sought out new means—from streaming “Hamilton” on Disney+ to live Zoom productions—to satisfy their theater fix and keep the industry alive.
Today, with vaccine distribution trickling out and a somewhat more “normal” summer on the horizon, live performances, scenic designs, handheld Playbills and backstage autographs will soon take shape again.
And, as demonstrated last Saturday, the commendable young artists of the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Musical Theater Ensemble will be strong contenders for the future of showbiz.
Directed by Dr. Frank Ragsdale, chair of the vocal performance department at Frost, the Musical Theater Ensemble is currently comprised of 12 undergraduate classical vocalists enrolled in various programs at the Frost School, from music performance to therapy to education, who all share a passion for the genre of musical theater.
In the ensemble’s only concert of the spring semester, “The Schwartz Effect,” the performers sang and danced through an evening of Broadway hits by Stephen Schwartz, the profound American lyricist, composer and musical mastermind behind shows like “Pippin,” “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Children of Eden.”
The performance took place on April 10 in Gusman Hall at the UM Coral Gables campus and reached an audience of more than 500 people via an online YouTube livestream.
A condensed, socially distanced pit orchestra of 10 instrumentalists (including violin, piano, guitar, electric bass, flute, saxophone, drum set and synthesizer) assembled in the space between the auditorium stage and front row, with Ragsdale at the conductor’s podium.
Donning all-black dressy attire and glittery masks, the singers strutted onstage, outspread into a semicircle with one soloist front and center and delivered the opening number — a medley of Schwartz’s songs “Day by Day,” “Topsy Turvy” and “We Beseech Thee” — with a bold, sunshiny personality.
The program balanced out full ensemble numbers with solos spotlighting each musician. From the beginning, it was evident that these vocalists are rigorously trained at UM. Under Ragsdale’s leadership, the ensemble’s splits into harmony were spot-on, and each soloist shined uniquely with a piece fitting their vocal range and abilities.
The most memorable of all performances was junior Olivia Damasco’s interpretation of “The Wizard and I.” Damasco didn’t just sound like Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West). She captured the character’s dream-come-true anticipation to meet and befriend the glorious Wizard, all while boasting an impressive belting vibrato.
A variety of vocal timbres lies within the theatrical ensemble. Senior Emma Skowron exuded the childish, arrogant energy of Pippin (the titular role of Schwartz’s musical) in her rendition of “Extraordinary.” Her tone was glowing and outgoing, whereas junior Niaz Sage’s voice rang like a soft-spoken soprano.
Nonetheless, Sage’s rendering of “Popular” (Glinda the Good Witch’s signature piece) was adorable and lighthearted, providing a much-needed break from the more intensely moving repertoire of the night, like junior Kailah Strickland’s gorgeous intonation of “Heartless” from “The Prince of Egypt.”
The most dynamic performances of songs featuring the full group were “When You Believe,” “Defying Gravity” and, capping off the night, “Bless the Lord.” On par with the singers, the orchestra exhibited mastery of the score — although the volume was sometimes mildly overpowering.
The musicians transitioned seamlessly from triple to duple meters in “I’m Not That Girl,” and each instrument’s entrance was sharply signaled by Ragsdale’s baton. Special kudos to freshman composer and violinist Gabe Wallerstein for orchestrating all the solo works on the program and pianist Yianni Iliadis for a glimmering accompaniment.
“The Schwartz Effect” was all-around entertaining but drew criticism in nonmusical avenues. For starters, the ensemble’s footwork could’ve used improvement. Most of the group’s arm motions were rather lackluster, and some of the more active dance moves were not totally synchronized.
It’s worth noting that the choreography was directed by one of the ensemble’s own students — which is awesome! — but perhaps some more professional guidance would have made all the difference.
Throughout the concert, whirling light effects and colorful shadows contrasted the background of each performance. However, the electric green flashes behind some of the “Wicked” tunes were unnecessarily harsh on the live audience’s eyes.
While the choice of all-black uniformity was understandable, maybe a little costuming would’ve livened up the show more effectively than such blinding illuminations.
words_gianna milan photo_kyle head on unsplash