'Schwartz Project' Adds Its Own Verve To Spirited Tunes

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008; C01

Who would guess that sedate and comely Alexandria could muster so much show-tune pizazz? Old Town's power generator of the moment is housed in the confines of MetroStage, where nine young actors all but jump out of their talented skins in the cause of selling the songs of "The Stephen Schwartz Project."

This world-premiere engagement -- conceived, staged and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt -- is an anthology-formatted revue of 28 songs written or co-written by Schwartz, composer of the stage musicals "Wicked," "Pippin" and "Godspell" and lyricist for animated movie musicals such as "Pocahontas." The show's bland title belies the exuberance of Bobbitt and musical arranger John L. Cornelius II in mixing the styles of the music for their go-getter of an ensemble.

The very best idea they've had is in skewing green -- as in young -- for their cast. Although Schwartz's early musicals zestfully embody the melodic vigor of the late '60s and early '70s, some of his later music has tended toward the hitting of more predictable notes. (Despite its juggernaut status, "Wicked" does not come close to the auditory pleasures of "Godspell," or even of his underrated "The Baker's Wife.")

In any event, some of Schwartz's best material has reflected the concerns of a generation that is coming of age, and so bequeathing his music to performers at that stage of life is a becoming choice. Two cast members, Amber Iman Moorer and Jobari Parker-Namdar, are in fact Howard University undergraduates, and both are exciting finds. (They're proof that someone in casting in these parts should be waiting outside college gates with a script and a net!) Jobari Parker-Namdar and Felicia Curry

Several actors with more stage experience, such as the vivacious Felicia Curry -- who for all I know eats a can of spinach before every number -- fill out MetroStage's song-and-dance card. And even so, the rawness of the talent does at times lead us to the edge of chaos; a case of over-singing infects the occasional power ballad, and an overly busy production number or two give way to a dizzying dose of the frantic.

Nevertheless, Bobbitt and music director Doug Bowles, who presides over the accomplished five-piece band, find numerous ways to harness all that youthful brio and infuse "The Stephen Schwartz Project" with an invigorating capacity to entertain.

About half the numbers are culled from titles you might not be familiar with, such as "The Magic Show," a 1974 vehicle for the late magician Doug Henning, or cult-favorite "The Baker's Wife," a 1970s show based on a Marcel Pagnol film that never made it to Broadway, or even "Rags," a musical about Jewish immigrants that opened on Broadway on Aug. 21, 1986, and closed two days later. Although a few of Schwartz's most recognizable compositions are also included -- "Defying Gravity" (from "Wicked") and "Day by Day" (from "Godspell"), for example -- the revue seeks to showcase whole sheaves of Schwartz's music that don't get anything like a regular hearing.

A moody ballad, "Cold Enough to Snow," with words by Schwartz and Amber Moorermusic by his frequent movie songwriting partner, Alan Menken, comes from the 1993 Michael J. Fox comedy "Life With Mikey." Here, it's sung in the resonant baritone of melisma-favoring Parker-Namdar, supplying one of the night's standout solo moments. Among the others are one by Moorer, in a velvety "Colors of the Wind" from "Pocahontas"; Kerry Deitrick's fine "Meadowlark," which does justice to the signature song of "Baker's Wife"; and Florrie Bagel's "Since I Gave My Heart Away" from the Disney TV musical "Geppetto."

The unsinkable Curry leads the cast in "Children of Eden's" spirited "Ain't It Good?" -- for which the actress dons the robes of a gospel chorister and turns the little theater into a sanctuary for swing. Many numbers are tightly choreographed, including a funk-influenced take on "Magic to Do" from "Pippin" and a tap routine for a blending of songs (from "Godspell" and "Wicked"). Cornelius, meantime, takes inviting liberties with his arrangements, creating intriguingly original harmonies and unorthodox settings. A multilingual "Day by Day" helps to lift that folk-mass staple out of the zone of the prettily banal.

Bobbitt tries to inject a modicum of narrative order -- without resorting to superfluous narration, thankfully. The group song framing the evening is "Spark of Creation" from "Children of Eden," and this sets up an emotional migration from songs of a plaintive variety to those of sunnier complexion. Visually, the production is underwhelming; akin to the characters of "Godspell," the actors are outfitted in a crazy quilt of styles, and the choices feel a little too self-conscious. The minimal set looks dully economical.

Here and there, Bobbitt thematically binds a few songs together -- a trio of pieces about city life, for instance -- and he's smart about creating the illusion of song links, simply by overlapping the presence of his performers.

Still, there's no pressure at any point of "The Stephen Schwartz Project" to divert your concentration to a search for hidden meaning. The obvious joy the cast takes in showcasing Schwartz's words and music is diversion enough.

The Stephen Schwartz Project, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Music direction, Doug Bowles; set, Alex Cooper; lighting, Jason Arnold; costumes, Emily Dere; sound, Steve Baena. With Priscilla Cuellar, Andrew Sonntag, Clif Walker, Benjamin Horen. About 1 hour 20 minutes. Through May 25 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.metrostage.org.