News Column

Human Race will stage Festival of New Musicals

July 27, 2014

By Meredith Moss, Dayton Daily News, Ohio

July 27--Those who were blown away by the recent theatrical production of "Play it By Heart" at the Loft Theatre now have some idea of what Dayton's professional regional theater company can do when it sets about developing new musicals.

You'll get that opportunity again Aug. 1-2 when the Human Race Theatre Company presents its Festival of New Musicals. In addition to introducing "Molly Sweeney: A Musical," a Saturday night "Songwriter Showcase" has been added to the mix.

"There were so many submissions of good works, that this seemed like the best way to introduce a number of new works in development," explained producing artistic director Kevin Moore, who said he receives between three and five submissions every week. "This festival represents both the cream of the submissions and an opportunity to re-visit our Musical Theatre Workshops alumni."

The concert lineup, performed by Human Race resident artists and friends, includes works by Janet Vogt and Mark Friedman, Adam Gwon, Rob Hartmann, Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond, Sean Michael Flowers, Joseph Thalken, Doug Cohen and Dan Elish, and Edwin Wilson and Doug Katsaros.

Moore says by combining the staged reading with a concert, the audience will be introduced to 10 new musicals over the weekend and will get a snapshot of the work going on across the nation in musical theater.

Hosting the Saturday night showcase will be Dayton native and Broadway performer Susan Blackwell, who said she is thrilled to be returning to Dayton for the special event.

"As a proud Dayton native, Human Race alum, and creator of new musicals, I couldn't be more excited to be involved in this event," said Blackwell, best known for playing herself in a musical called "title of show."

Blackwell's theatrical career really got its start in Dayton. As student at Bethel High School, she worked backstage at the first Human Race production at the Biltmore and appeared in the Muse Machine's "Carousel." While at Wright State University she appeared in "Viva Victoria," and also performed in the Gala Opening of the Victoria Theater and in Human Race productions of "The Boys Next Door" and "Scotland Road."

Blackwell said when she was growing up in Ohio, she dreamed of being on Broadway.

"Now I live in New York, and Broadway is my home, and the chance to be on a Dayton stage again is completely exciting!" she said.

Meet Molly Sweeney

The musical selected for presentation at this seventh annual festival is an adaptation of Brian Friel's 1994 play. According to the Human Race, it's the first time a writing team has been granted full permission by Friel to adapt one of his plays as a musical.

It's the brainstorm of composer/lyricist Caleb Damschroder and book writer Eric Ulloa. Damschroder is taking a leave from his regular job as a performer in Broadway's current production of "Cabaret" to work in Dayton.

Ulloa has past connections with the Human Race, performing in both "Shenandoah" and "Man of La Mancha." He grew up in Miami, Fla., the son of Cuban parents, and originally dreamed of becoming an animator.

"I took a Disney course when I was 14 and discovered that for every three minutes of film, I'd be drawing 2,000 pictures," said Ulloa, who was inspired to change directions in high school when he saw a musical production of "Li'l Abner."

After acting through college, he headed for New York and immediately had a lucky break: he auditioned for a production of "Follies" to mark Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday, and learned the next day that he had been cast.

But in 2011, when the acting roles began to dwindle, Ulloa remembered his mother's advice: "Never forget your writing."

Ulloa has been writing ever since: his play "26 Pebbles," about the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, will open Off-Broadway in the fall.

He hadn't thought of writing a musical until one day when he and his friend Caleb -- a performer and songwriter -- were talking about the state of the musical and Caleb came up with the idea of turning Molly Sweeney into a musical.

"I went to the store, bought the play and called him and said 'let's start writing,'" said Ulloa.

You'll see the results next weekend.

"We have a very distinct advantage because as performers, we know when the script is lousy or the music isn't strong and we know when something is good," said Ulloa, who said that initially the two put together a few scenes and songs and then reached out to Friel in London.

"He's now in his 80s and we found his agent in London and wrote an email with our idea and sent some of the scenes and songs and Mr. Friel thought it was interesting and ultimately said yes."

About the story

The plot revolves around a woman who has been blind her entire life and has a chance to regain her vision. When a once-great surgeon removes the bandages after Molly's surgery, the three main characters -- Molly, her husband and the doctor -- discover that learning to see comes with unexpected consequences.

"I've always been drawn to the idea of the human condition," said Ulloa," and there was something about this story -- the idea of people gambling with something they don't quite know -- that was so interesting."

Ulloa labels the show light-hearted, "but heavy in what they go through."

He said it's an interesting exploration of human folly.

"When we think we're being completely selfless, are we really being selfish?" he asks. "We always think we're going to help people, but is it really for ourselves?"

Eleven actors will appear in the show. The actor playing Molly -- Lindsie VanWinkle -- as well as director Igor Golden, were involved in a New York reading of the play last year.

The production features Human Race Resident artist Scott Stoney in the role of the doctor.

"I love the workshop format, the story-telling and making new art," said Stoney, who has been an active participant in the workshop program since it's inception and believes theater must be seen in order to reach its fullest potential to impact an audience.

Ulloa said there's a safety net in bringing a new work outside of New York where it's harder to "play and be creative and get messy with it."

While in Dayton, he said, he and Damschroder will begin to see what the show looks like physically.

"We are completely open-minded, and ready to rewrite scenes or songs that don't work," he said. "Then we'll know about the next step."

Ulloa said one thing the Human Race does incredibly well is to produce interesting pieces of theater.

"It's very commendable that in this day and age when theaters are trying to keep up with lower audience attendance, higher ticket prices and cost, they still seem to give audiences really bold and interesting material."

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(c)2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

Visit the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) at www.daytondailynews.com

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Source: Dayton Daily News (OH)


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