“… and may the Schwartz be with you.”
Well, not the interplanetary guiding force from Mel Brooks’ goofy film spoof of “Star Wars” and other galaxy yarns, “Spaceballs,” but that of Stephen Schwartz, one of America’s greatest songsmiths over the last four decades. Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions, aka KTP and the brainchild of Beth Gerardi-Wharton and her husband Keith, has an original work featuring almost two dozen songs, most with music and lyrics by Schwartz, titled “A Night With Schwartz.” The company continues to grow.
Schwartz, the composer/lyricist, started his career at the top. “Godspell,” his 1971 urban take on the Gospel according to St. Matthew – tuneful and reverent and still playing somewhere in the world on any given night – wowed musical magnates. The modern-day parable quickly led to the Broadway smash “Pippin” and a succession of hits and also-rans, including the huge Book of Genesis tale, “Children of Eden,” and a culminating “Wicked,” or Oz revisited.
“Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked” are well-represented over the course of KTP’s Schwartz “Night,” but the company, Gerardi-Wharton in particular, has wisely assembled a collection of tunes from “lesser” shows, melodies and words that “seep into you somehow,” as theater writer Marc Pratt once observed. KTP’s fine cast, wonderfully adept vocally, not so when called upon to take some dance steps, generally does well taking Schwartz tunes out of context, always a problem in these gushing, homage-giving retrospectives. I’m pretty sure that Western New York hasn’t had many opportunities, if any, to hear songs from “The Baker’s Wife,” “Reluctant Pilgrim,” “Uncharted Territory” and the modest hit, “Rags.”
Add the sweet “Lion Tamer” from Doug Henning’s “The Magic Show,” a whimsical few minutes from “Captain Louie,” the poignant “Fathers and Sons” from Stud Terkel’s blue-collar musical, “Working,” themes from Schwartz’s Disney tenure and a closing, powerfully touching anthem by the ensemble, “Testimony,” a song/poem on “coming out” written for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
The KTP spends much time in teaching mode. It’s a labor of love, not perfect – a few lame scene and song setups, a good deal of standing around looking pensive, a clunky bit of choreography on the usually enjoyable “All for the Best,” from “Godspell” – but solo vocals are often crisp and knowing, sensitive minutes from a carefully selected cast of eight. For KTP’s first foray into an original work, “Night” is admirable. The Schwartz was definitely with them.
“A Night With Schwartz” features Bethany Burrows and Mary Ryan – outstanding, particularly Ryan on “As Long As You’re Mine,” one of three songs from “Wicked” and the long puzzler, “Meadowlark,” from “The Baker’s Wife” – as well as Kelly Kroese, Melissa Leventhal, Christian Riso, anchor and Everyman Robert Insana, take-charge and energized Shawn Smith and Gerardi-Wharton, superb on “Defying Gravity.”
KTP will have “special guests” during the run of the show. Opening night saw the bar set high: Soprano Heather Holden’s languid, bluesy “Blame It On the Summer Night,” from “Rags,” is an evening highlight. Keith Wharton also has solo, center-stage moments. Guest artists – a fine idea.
Director Gerardi-Wharton’s goal for this Schwartz tribute was to “broaden musical horizons for their audiences.” Mission accomplished.
“A Night With Schwartz”
Three stars (Out of four)
Musical tribute at Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions, through Feb. 16 at Medaille College, Lecture Hall Theatre, 18 Agassiz Circle. Tickets are $13-$20. Call 479-1587 or visit www.kaleidosopebuffalo.com.