We Sing, We Dance, We Belt Our Faces Off! NY Musical Theatre Festival Roundup: Part 1

October is officially upon us, and in the world of New York theater, this means we are inundated with NYMF shows (the New York Musical Theatre Festival).  Known as a breeding ground for up and coming shows and writers, the NYMF has been the pregenitor of such Broadway smash hits as Next to Normal (won the Pulitzer!) and the upcoming YANK! What will be the next show to emerge from the NYMF with investors on the track to Broadway?  I went to a handful of the most promising contenders, and here are my thoughts.

Nighttime Traffic

Picture this: you are saddled in a hospital bed, your boyfriend at your side, only 6 hours before a dangerous operation.  You are offered a pill that slows down time, so that those 6 hours could last 6 days.  What would you do if you could slow down time, savoring each moment, steeping yourself in happy moments so they last forever?  Nighttime Traffic, music, book and lyrics by Alex Wyse, asks those very questions.  Jacob Hoffman and Matt Dengler give astounding performances as the gay couple thrown into this situation; Hoffman as crazed party boy Max, and Dengler as his more OCD and neurotic boyfriend Calder.  They wind their way through the surreal night in a mix of reality and fantasy, all made chillingly ethereal by Ryan Wineinger’s haunting projections.  The music is mostly soothing with hints of explosiveness, almost manic-depressive, reflecting the constant shifting emotions of the protagonists.

Matt Dengler (Calder) and Jacob Hoffman (Max) in Nighttime Traffic (photo by Jeff Larkin)

This is not a happy-go-lucky, fun musical.  This is a musical for those who want to think and consider their own relationships.  If anything, it offers an allegory for those of us who perhaps need to be more mindful of how we spend our time.  The 90-minute show might seem like 90 hours, or 90 seconds, depending on your commitment to investing in the characters.

Tess, a New Rock Opera

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one of those books that I should have read in high school, but was probably too busy singing in choir or being a band geek, so I never got around to it.  So I offer a mighty thank you to Tess, a New Rock Opera for imparting this story onto me, years later.  Luckily for me, the story is pretty timeless, consisting of a typical young girl and her “struggle to remain pure in a stained world.”  The music is largely ethereal, but with ever-present heavy bass, almost as a reminder of the darkness and pressing nature of the world around Tess.

Jenna Pasqua (Tess) and Nick Cartell (Angel)

Notable performances come from Nick Cartell as Angel (gorgeous voice), and the eye-catching Michelle Dowdy as one of the Tess’ three jealous friends.  Like Nighttime Traffic, this isn’t a happy-go-lucky musical – more like 2 hours of heart-wrenching conflict and inner turmoil.  But if you were too busy starring in the Drama Club in high school to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, check this out for your own literary education.

Show Choir: The Musical

Hold on to your stage fedoras and tap shoes, because you are in for a ride with this one!  Fresh on the heels of Glee, Show Choir (which claims to have been “before Glee“) takes a somewhat different approach.  Here, we follow the creation of a show choir through its nascent stages and up and beyond small-town “Middle America” (their words, not mine).  Boasting a large cast of 21, this show offers both ridiculous dancing and singing, as well as a surprising amount of serious material to round it out.

Notable performances come from Shira Elias as “Janelle”, who really wows the audience with her powerhouse voice.  Also, I lost count of how many characters Jeanne Tinker played – everything from an Indian mother figure to a talk show host to midwestern mom – she really does it all.  Show Choir really offers a lot – stick with it for the plot twists and turns, and just sit back and let yourself enjoy the tackiness and cornball humor.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the NYMF roundup next week!  Tickets and more information are available here.