CLEVELAND KEY STEP IN UNBEATABLE’S MUSICAL JOURNEY
I’ve had a couple of opportunities this month to share my input on developing theater works in Northeast Ohio.
The first was Cleveland Heights playwright Eric Coble’s musical Unbeatable, which is Off-Broadway-bound. He and the creative team, presented by Journey Projects, held a weekend-long backers audition June 8-10 to try out the developing show in front of potential producers visiting from throughout the country.
Coble, who wrote the book for the musical, stressed that the piece is going through nontraditional funding sources on its journey toward Off-Broadway. The show is based on a Cleveland woman’s real battle against breast cancer, and is supported by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
A musical about breast cancer? How the heck is that going to work?
That’s the exact question I had in mind when my curiosity led me to attend a tech rehearsal of the show at Playhouse Square’s Idea Center.
It’s a tribute to Coble and the excellent Cleveland actors he assembled — Tracee Patterson, Lissy Gulick, Tricia Bestic, Greg Violand, Tina Stump, Frank Kosik, Nick Koesters, Maryann Nagel, Cassie Goldbach and Reggie Scott — that the show was nearly sold out over four performances on a weekend that the Cavs were playing and the Tonys and the final episode of the Sopranos were on TV.
The musical has a catchy, R&B-infused score by L.A. composer Todd Schoeder, with lyrics by Kevin Fisher of Los Angeles. Schroeder music-directed from the piano in Cleveland. Director is Michael Barnard of Phoenix, who directed the show’s first staged reading there in August, 2006.
The story is based on the true story of Cleveland’s Laurie Frey, who conceived the show through Journey Projects and is involved with its development. (See http://www.journeyprojects.com.)
The book is about a time-obsessed young professional who only sees people as a line on her checkoff list. Her main goal in life is to save time so she can create more time to do more work.
All of that comes to a halt, albeit unwillingly, when Tracy (Tracee Patterson) finds out she has breast cancer. Her loved ones include husband Brad (Nick Koesters) and best friend Ally (Tina Stump).
As Tracy goes through clinical trials to try to beat her cancer, she goes through a metaphorical trial where she is judged on how she spent her time with others in the year after she was diagnosed with cancer. The trial’s the central conceit of the musical, and it’s a clever one.
Her main tormentor at the trial, a young woman played by Goldbach, tells her, ”You’re going to die with people still not knowing how to touch you.”
How sad and telling. But this musical never comes across as maudlin. This creative team is so good, they make a musical about breast cancer work.
Although we know Tracy is a Type A personality taskmaster, in Patterson’s ultra-capable hands, we grow to love her. The same can not be said for husband Brad (Koesters), who I saw as a truly problematic, wimpy character from the start.
I told Coble that I didn’t feel the husband-wife bond was a strong enough part of the story in the first act. Brad was presented as so unsure of himself, I wasn’t sure if he was Tracy’s husband or son the first time they talked on the phone onstage.
That relationship came into focus better in the second act, but I still had some questions about Brad’s presence (or lack thereof) during Tracy’s surgery.
The best friend relationship between Tracy and Ally (Stump) was developed very nicely.
Some of the musical highlights are the cute duet SuperShake, where Ally helps Tracy develop a healthy diet to combat her cancer, and the sassy, bluesy Pricked, Poked and Prodded. This tune provides one of the production’s finest moments, when Tracy bonds with fellow clinical trial patients Natalie and Ruthie.
Other highlights were the touching lullabye Follow the Light, performed by Gulick, and the campy Miss Chemo, done beauty pageant-style.
I also enjoyed the gospel-style Hold On To Love and the final, exhilarating Live.
The show’s message has to do with giving up control — of having to fall to find oneself. So many who have gone through personal struggles will be able to relate to the universal truths illuminated here.
This musical is sure to be highly accessible to just about everybody: Whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer, through family members or friends?
It’s a touching show that will go through another workshop production in early August in New York. After that, the Off-Broadway New World Stages has been reserved for the production in October-November.
Cheers to Cleveland for being a vital part of the making of this show.
NARROW BRIDGE DEVELOPMENTS
At the Bang and the Clatter, the theater’s Critics Circle recently gave feedback on Cleveland playwright Cliff Hershman’s developing play A Narrow Bridge, whose world premiere will open this Friday (June 29) at the Akron venue.
We were looking at an early revision, whose unnatural, choppy dialogue left me having difficulties getting into the world of the play. The piece read poorly, and in my mind’s eye, the repetition in the dialogue didn’t serve an important purpose.
Repetition of ”You’re so out of it,” ”It’s you,” and ”It’s her” just didn’t do it for me. Who talks like that?
The story is about a con man who fears his estranged, recently returned son will expose him to his new family. BNC founders Sean McConaha and Sean Derry picked the play because they were very interested in its premise.
It was good to hear that the script has been substantially revised again, with dozens of pages added to flesh out some characters. The ending has been changed to make more sense and provide closure. Text also has been added to illuminate the play’s title, which hadn’t been referenced before.
Here’s to hoping the staged production comes across as a very different animal than the underwhelming version I read.