News Column

'The Bench' fuses dance, jazz and theater

July 12, 2013

YellowBrix

July 12--Things are falling into place for this weekend's performance of "The Bench -- Journey into Love," an exciting new theatrical venture coming to the Treasure Valley.

"The Bench" is more than just a show. It's the seed of something that could become the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Titus Theatricals -- a new Boise-based production company founded by 25-year-old Eric McCree -- and the City of Trees.

"The Bench" will premiere July 13 with two shows at the Nampa Civic Center and a cast of local and imported artists who helped create this theatrical hybrid -- a jazz-ballet concert musical with heart.

McCree sought to bring his love of theater back to his hometown last year, when he founded Titus Theatricals. His intention is to use Boise as a base from which to create theater for the world stage, and help build the local creative economy, he says.

"So many great shows have been launched from alternative cities," he says. "The average audience is starving for smart, innovative works. I believe that with this show we can bring together traditional values and new ways of delivering entertainment."

McCree's new delivery system led to creating a new way to think about how shows can come together, he says.

So, McCree and "The Bench" choreographer and creator Kiesha Lalama (of the PBS series "Broadway or Bust") will produce what McCree calls a "musical reading." That's a bit confusing because it also includes dancers, singers and musicians. So, think more of a prestaging or full-cast run-through.

The cast includes 11 dancers from the Boise Dance Co-op, two dancers and two vocalists from the East Coast, and six Boise jazz musicians. They spent the week working at Trey McIntyre Project studios and Broadway Dance Center in Boise.

This is a different process for everyone involved, says Ballet Idaho's Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti, who will perform one of the lead roles and who helped cast the piece.

"I have no idea how it's going to come together. We're all going in with our arms wide open," she says. "It's a great opportunity. I'm just opening myself up to the process and doing something new."

The show evolved after McCree and Lalama announced in January that the project would come to Boise.

"The Bench" is a narrative jazz-ballet about love, life and family. With McCree's support, Lalama's vision expanded to include lyrics by poet Joel Mason that will be sung by Broadway star Tituss Burgess and vocalist Angela Birchett, who will tell the story through the medium of jazz.

Lalama's cousin David Lalama composed the score, which is written like a musical sketch to allow the musicians to improvise during the performance off each other and the dancing on stage.

That's something new even for the musicians, says pianist Chuck Smith, who is working with David Lalama on the arrangements.

"This is a pretty cool project to find in your own backyard," Smith says. Smith will lead the sextet of two keyboardists (including himself), bass, saxophone, drums and percussion for the shows.

This is a perfect fit for Smith, who is a jazz pianist who also played in orchestra pits on Broadway and at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. He and McCree met many years ago in Boise when McCree was a teenager and Smith accompanied the choir at the First Baptist Church of Boise, where McCree's family attended.

The two connected through a love of music then and now. McCree went on to study sound engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle. After a stint as an intern at the Denver Centre, his interest turned to producing, although he keeps his day job doing sound for major traveling shows from Disney to Broadway.

"It's really going to be a collaborative process. The charts are just melody, chord changes and a specific number of bars. We have the minimum amount of information on which to be maximally creative," Smith says. "You have to hear and see what's going on around you. Working with dancers will make that very different."

This is just the first project that McCree wants to produce from Boise. His goal is to take it to Broadway and beyond.

After the Boise performances, the next step for "The Bench" is to go back to New York for a deeper workshop process once Titus Theatricals receives financial backing. Then they will be submitting the project to theater festivals in 2014.

Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland

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(c)2013 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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