Denton — The remarkably original Jonathan Eaton is always a surprise. He is the Director of Opera at the University of North Texas and he has put that company on the map in just two years.
This astonishment continued when I attended his and Robert Frankenberry’s original dramatic revue If I Loved You… in April. The revue utilized a wealth of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, linking them together in a new dramatic scenario, with new dialogue and contemporary characters. It was delightful, engaging, moving and gloriously sung.
Before I attended the performance, my thoughts were: how do you incorporate so many diverse songs with lyrics that tell their own stories into a cohesive new piece? With permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and the knowledge that other R&H revues exist, Eaton took what was both the simplest yet the most demanding approach.
Taking a page from A Chorus Line, the first act is set in the hothouse of an audition session for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue. Since all the characters need to sing a song for their audition, this allows Eaton to pick almost anything from the R&H canon; and he has certainly chosen a variety. Through the songs and Eaton’s dialogue, we are introduced to eight auditioning actors and the very convincing human relationships between them, on- and off-stage. Anyone who has attended such an audition knows that in real life professional actors Iive in a very small world and that onstage relationships don’t always end when the actors exit the stage door. This is where the piece becomes more subtle and demanding.
Among our eight hopefuls, there are the usual former love affairs dredged up and even a child whose paternity is in question (notice the ellipsis at the end of the show’s title). This becomes both touching and hilarious as the tangle of relationships are worked out in front of everyone. The challenge—and the fun—lies in the way that the singers overlay their characters’ personalities onto the songs. The R&H-assigned traits of the songs remain clear, but their original intent soon starts to merge with the new story Eaton’s characters create.
The device works well. We meet the singers as they arrive at the audition. After a series of unexpected revelations as they await their fate, the first act ends with a surprise announcement. The second act is the piano dress rehearsal for the show, and the relationships evolve further.
Will she take him back? Does the matinee idol get his comeuppance? Who’s the real daddy? The show builds to a I-laughed-I-cried climax and to quote another playwright, all’s well that ends well. In the process, we hear some prime examples from the American Songbook, including some lesser known R&H tunes.
I experienced the versatility of the piece with the second cast. While it was much the same physical production, it felt quite different because Eaton allows his performers latitude, as long as what they do remains within the confines of the concept. The two casts were excellent. The lead romantic ladies, Jocelyn Hansen and Alexandra Johnson, were particularly affecting. Hansen has a steelier presence, and her songs were immaculately sung; Johnson had a lighter and more vulnerable touch. The lead males were in the hands of Austin Murray and Jacob Tipoff. They are, at least think they are, the heartthrobs of the stage: superbly arrogant and egocentric until they are mellowed by unrequited love.
The romantic couple is balanced by another such couple, but this time it is two men. They were wittily portrayed by Vinnie Mahal and Steven Hyland, singing rare treasures like “Bum’s Opera” from Pipe Dream. Special mention must also go to the other comedians in the pack, with memorable work by Kyle Feather, David Bogaev, Lawrence Hall, Haley Murdoch and Chelsea Day. It is also worth noting that this music soars when sung with the “legit” but flexible technique the UNT opera singers brought to it. This versatility was demonstrated by Angela Sakimpa and Megan Koch, whose performances of “Love Look Away” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” would inspire anyone to climb ev’ry mountain.
Half of the praise has to go to the multi-talented Robert Frankenberry, the opera conductor and vocal coach at UNT who was also instrumental in creating If I Loved You… He accompanied the version I saw on the piano, which works just fine for the audition scenes in Act I. He wants to create a small band orchestration as an option for Act II. His feel for the songs and his vibrant support of the singers were right on.
This is not the first show Jonathan Eaton and Robert Frankenberry have assembled together and their future as a musical theater duo looks bright.
» Listen to our audio interview with Eaton and Frankberry about this show here.