/College Night 2018: Judges’ comments

College Night 2018: Judges’ comments

Judge 1:

Tech issues obscured much of what audience cheering and screaming and applause didn’t. Obviously, the game-like atmosphere’s integral to and a tradition for College Night, but each side’s supporters should bear in mind that, by drowning out singers and actors at peak moments, muddying punch lines and melodies, they’re actually weakening their show’s performance.


Audiences/judges can only go by what they’ve seen and heard, so moments blurred in the muddle create a drag on the overall intent. Character’s names, motivations, occupations, attitudes … all lost in the noise, so that what rises above are only the broad outlines of a parody. Parody, like most comedy, is in the details. Without fine edges, it’s a watercolor cartoon.


Both shows suffered from sound issues, but they were especially rough on the first performance of Saturday evening, “All in the Swing: A Golden Musical.” And that’s a shame, because as a riff on cornpone musicals such as “Oklahoma,” with a bit of mustache-twirling villainy ripped from silent films, “All in the Swing” maintained consistent energy and amusement levels throughout, and might have been even smarter, had its script and lyrics been clearer. For the future, it’d be interesting to see if the kids could work with an off-stage band, so as to better blend the sound.


Not enough was available, via script or costume, to clearly distinguish between one toothless miner and another, so the script was left with a lot of water to carry. A couple of the leads stood out via clearer diction — and mics that mostly worked — though some motivations and plot points were lost early in that white-noise issue. With that much crowd-noise factor to work with, actor/performers have got to ride the wave, wait out the crest of the applause, and surf down as it descends.


The group dance scenes lifted it to another plane, with high energy and clear joy evident. Gold made terrific use of the handful with more dance training and experience, while giving the others moves within their abilities. The precision of these [group dance scenes] paid off the long hours of rehearsal.


In non-musical scenes, though, groups tended to clutter, so take a cue from the choreographers and spread the space. Find dimensions and levels, and make them come alive. That’s especially important playing with sets that are mostly painted backdrops. (By the way, the Mel Brooks-ian comedy around the mercantile could use refinement: More General Store is an OK gag, but the leap from there to the bloody issue of conflict diamonds doesn’t work in the show’s favor).


Sympathy for the characters might have gone a long way, in that aside from characteristics, as ably embodied by charming performers, there wasn’t much to go on: Who is this couple? Why are they here? Why’s this guy in league with that guy, aside from Pinky and the Brain motives?


Melodically and lyrically, it was impressive, a lot of strong work for the singers to enjoy, and tipped toward the ecstatic by the high-stepping dance. But as with the rest of the script, what could have helped musically was more variation in character and pace, changes in tempo and energy.


Add in a touch of heartbreak, a little romance or pathos, which would necessitate honest feeling for the characters — it often felt as though the writers had little other than toothless contempt for its gold-rushers — and this show could fly.


“Code Purple: A Top Secret Musical” zipped along avidly from its opening backlit dance-through, a tableaux suggesting Cirque du 007, to a satisfyingly achieved finale.

Spy parodies have been around almost as long as spy stories, dating back a half century at least, but spy-musical parodies are less-tried, being as spy musicals aren’t yet a genre. So in novelty alone, it stood out. “Code Purple” leans on character, almost always the right choice, as without having someone to root for (or against), there’s no attachment. Zachary Tarwater’s Agent Valentine begged [for] and won sympathy with the sweet “Undercover Me,” built around a simple, effective pun on layers of humanity beneath the trench coat, with an infectious melody right in the singer’s range.


Decent build-up from comedic/musical-comedy types, in part due to the self-aware but warm script, and part due to well-cast leads, with Amber Hayes vividly defining Director Hart, and Robin Stevens slicing through the goof as nonsense-free Agent Percy, Type A foil to Valentine’s decent bumbler.


On the bad-guy side, Goldman and Eyepatch – silly, but no worse than some Bond monikers; workable, with meta-references enabled — pulled off some distinctive work, even if, as with the sound issues mentioned earlier, some dialogue/jokes/lines got buried under crowds reacting in anticipation. Maybe don’t let repeat viewers in, on Saturday night? A hard choice for this event, but worth considering, so audiences can feel the full impact.


After the backlit opening, the drops and props showed a comfortable grasp of the geography of the playing space. The “Café Dance” scene cleverly used set pieces to create distinct location feel, as did the mad scientist’s lab. Kudos to the lighting crew and designers for crafting strong, direct choices.


Some of the campier performances flew over the top fast. It felt as if some of that was again, in reaction to the crowd, knowing the audiences expected louder, faster, funnier, a build from previous performances. Trust the material. Don’t push. Let the audience meet you.

Pleasing understanding of theater as three-dimensional, breathing work, including the often-dreaded, but here smartly done, actors-running-into-the-audience shtick. With house-lights down and flashlights up, that bit covered scene changes well, helped keep the pace brisk.


Building toward larger musical numbers was a smart plan: Introduce individuals first, then go for the high-stepping crowd-pleasers. Tempo and mood shifts, a sense of swagger, in “The Fight Must Be Won” and “Let’s Break it Down” felt fresh and welcome. Smart use of the reprises, with two of the stronger compositions of the night.


But the group dances needed work. “Puppeteer” began strong, a fun idea that weakened and waned as it stretched on. It’s a major issue with splashy musical numbers: You don’t necessarily need pro dancers, but you do have to get everyone on the same steps. And again, as with the other show: wait out laughs or other crowd reactions. Comedy often depends on build, and you can’t build on white noise.


Even through its flaws, this show kept me grinning. Care and wit was evident in its creation and execution.

Judge 2:

Kicking off College Night, the Gold team presented “All in the Swing: A Golden Musical,” written by Alex Belli, Ryan Howard, Justice Allen and Gray Lackey, and directed by Emily Gabhart and Gray Lacky. It tells a story about life in an old west town on the brink of foreclosure from a ruthless financier who dupes a dim-witted store clerk into selling the townsfolk “used” tools so they would break while mining, slowing the mining process and causing them to need to buy tools again, stirring a vicious cycle and accelerating the foreclosure process. By the end, I got that much. I have to be honest though, I was having trouble understanding what was going on and why most of the show.  I completely understand that there were significant sound issues, often making it difficult to hear, however plays have been performed for centuries, long before microphones were invented. While it is my understanding that many of the participants are not necessarily trained in any type of vocal technique, there is still far more that can be done, by both the performers, and even by the team’s audience, to tell the story.


One of the best things about this show was the dancing. Many big production numbers, with cleanly executed, high-energy choreography by Jared Max Wright and Savannah Willard, really helped to sell the sense of community that the townspeople had with each other. The scenery was appropriate, and helped us get a sense of where we were from scene to scene. While the scene changes were a little long and clunky, the breaks benefited from a female frontier version of Statler and Waldorf, who narrated the transitions and cracked pun-filled jokes to pass the time. The highlight of the evening, however, was the aforementioned store clerk, Samuel Bennet, played by Jared Max Wright. He is a real triple threat, and I anticipate seeing more of him as his career progresses.


What got lost along the way was one of the primary characters, Jessie ”Jackpot” Jenkins, played by Ashley Woodson, who comes to town from relatively nowhere, and does not seem to have much reason to be there. Towards the end, she inspires the town folk in mining just enough to save their town from foreclosure when all hope seemed to be lost. Maybe it was lost in the dialogue with all the sound issues, but why the tightly knit townspeople needed motivation from a stranger who had only recently arrived to town was beyond me. This is no knock on Woodson, who played and sang the role well, Jessie just seemed to be an unnecessary character.


Before the night was over, however, the plot of the show played out in the evening, and the Gold team overcame a very clever and scrappy Purple show to pull out the win. Congrats to both sides on a fun evening.


Rounding out the evening was the Purple team with a very clever spy thriller entitled “Code Purple: A Top Secret Musical,” written by Aaron Coleman and directed by Dakota Patrick. The very first notes from the orchestra, led by Jonathan Mendoza and Tori Irvin, gave us a sense of where we were going with their show. Simple silhouette moments during the overture also helped to set the tone. The play centered on a goofy CIA agent, Agent Valentine, played nicely by Zachary Tarwater, who we quickly learn is only in that position because his mother is the Director of the CIA. Despite his constant blunders, he convinces her to put him on a case, to which he quickly gets distracted and bungles. By the end though, the agent that cannot get anything right ends up being the one to save the day, in large part aided by the personal quirks that so often hinder him.


The play really benefited from strong leading actors, namely Tarwater and the villain, Goldman, played by Blake-Anthony Lovelace, who seemed completely comfortable on stage and really relished his time in the spotlight. Speaking of spotlight, I really have to congratulate the Lighting Designer, Ricky Umstead, who took a very messy repertory plot and made the most of it with some resourceful color choices and creative effects. From one lighting guy to another, well done. I was also impressed with the various scenic elements. They had a nice variety of locations that were cohesive and complementary.


While there were many effective elements used to tell this story, there were also a few that hindered it. One was the incredibly beleaguered scene changes. While there were many pieces that had to change out, there also seemed to be adequate stagehands to do it in a timely manner. Instead, things moved incredibly slowly with nothing else to cover it. You can only run up and down the aisles so many times before that trick gets old. The dancing was decent and choreographed suitably, but often not as clean as it could be.


I would also like to touch on timing and delivery just a bit. I really love the energy and enthusiasm that an event like College Night brings. If you are not careful, though, it can be a deterrent to your performance. This is a note for both teams, but especially the Purple team this year. If you are in the audience, be careful not to cheer over the dialogue. While you may have heard this joke three times and it gets better every time, let the actors make the joke so the rest of us can hear it. Likewise, if you are on stage and the audience is applauding your efforts, wait for that to die down before continuing. That way we do not lose what could be important plot points.

Overall, it was quite an enjoyable night of theatre. College Night is such a unique tradition that has been a staple of the Montevallo campus for nearly 100 years. Both teams should be incredibly proud of their efforts in making such this year’s event remarkable.


Judge 3:

“All in the Swing: A Golden Musical” was an entertaining experience and fantastic introduction to the COLLEGE NIGHT tradition about which I have heard so much. There is an obvious collaboration required to bring such an effort to fruition and THE GOLDS successfully utilized all theatrical components in order to guide the audience through the fully realized world of the show. Unfortunately, due to sound problems and lack of articulation by certain cast members, I missed some of the exposition necessary to thoroughly follow the plot. These complications also resulted in my missing some of the jokes which were peppered throughout a script full of both over-the-top and subtle humor. The energy onstage was so palpable, however, that I quickly found myself forgetting these issues and became fully immersed in the story.

Directors, Gray Lackey and Emily Gabhart, responsible for maintaining and reinforcing an overall vision of the show, obviously calibrated all elements of the production while maintaining the intention and integrity of all artistic and technical elements. This dynamic directing team created engaging stage pictures, blocking with proper focus, and instilled a pace that kept the show alive and moving. Impressively quick transitions between scenes also contributed to the dynamic energy that was prevalent throughout.

Choreographers, Jared Max Wright and Savannah Willard used various dance styles in order to enhance “All in the Swing:  A Golden Musical.” As a choreographer myself, I can truly appreciate the time and energy that went into making the choreography clean, interesting, appropriate, and attainable for all ability levels. The dances were executed by a spirited group of performers who were fully committed from beginning to end.

The show was a true vehicle for ensemble work and both the directors and choreographers were successful in highlighting each performer’s strengths. In addition, the composers and lyricists provided a variety of songs which were used to drive the plot forward, highlight characterization, establish relationships, and/or get the audience clapping along. Although I found a few songs to be written in a key too high for certain female singers which prohibited us from hearing or understanding lyrics, the tunes were catchy, humorous, and quite clever.  These songs were accompanied by an adept orchestra, led by conductors Mary Light and Tyler Jones, who played the material well despite sometimes being overpowered by the cast.

The scenery, props, and costumes were all well-executed and highly suitable to the cartoon-like nature of the show. The lighting design seemed dark overall but perhaps this could be attributed to the light plot available and not the design itself.

Everyone who contributed to “All in the Swing: A Golden Musica”l should be commended on successfully creating an imaginary world through careful interpretation and expression of a strong text combined with the visual communication of the world of the script through performance, design, direction, and choreography.


“Code Purple: A Top Secret Musical” began with a strong opening montage, full of fun choreography and a lighting design that immediately peaked my interest and provided insight into the journey upon which we were about to embark. Unfortunately, due to various factors such as sound issues, audience reactions, and lack of articulation and/or volume by some actors, I had trouble following the arch of the story throughout its duration. Despite moments of weak vocal energy, both speaking and singing, the cast maintained full commitment throughout the entire show which made up for any small imperfections.

Actor Zachary Tarwater, as Agent Valentine, was a particular standout who balanced his humor with moments of honest sincerity, specifically in the song “Undercover Me” which is better than some songs in current Broadway repertoire. Kudos to the lyricists and composers for crafting such lovely tunes and to conductor, Jonathan Mendoza, and his orchestra who sounded “tight” while blending well with the cast.

Director, Dakota Patrick, made a valiant effort in tackling this huge undertaking but basic principles of effective blocking such as composition, movement, and focus weren’t always successfully executed in terms of clear connection to storytelling. Unbalanced blocking, actors upstaging themselves, or unnecessary “gags”, for example, impeded focus on important action and/or moments. And although the script also neglected to sometimes clearly define characters and situations, it was clever and replete with good messages, songs, and characters.

Choreographer, Claire Quirk and assistant, Madison Johnson, took on the very challenging task of creating a movement text to complement the script and score. Like the rest of the show, the choreography was fun and a bit “over-the-top,” performed full out by a talented ensemble. In my opinion, however, so many “tricks” weren’t needed in order to enhance the style of the show or further the plot.

Transitions in and out of scenes slowed down the pace of this otherwise tireless production as they were a bit disjointed and slower than I would have preferred. Perhaps the various settings needed for this show set in Washington D.C. in the 1980s could have been more easily represented with a more simplistic set design. Furthermore, long introductions into songs, where actors seemed to be waiting to sing, also impeded the flow of the narrative.

Creative and original costumes, props, hair, and makeup were all vital to the theme of the show and relevant to the setting. The lighting design seemed dark overall, but I suspect this has to do with the actual lighting plot available to the designer.

There are many complexities to putting together this puzzle we call a musical and I think THE PURPLES successfully realized their ideas through collaboration with the designers, actors, and other members of the creative team in order to bring “Code Purple:  A Top Secret Musical” to life.

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