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Singing Scrapbook 

Familiar tunes and earnest performances abound in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Snapshots

click to enlarge theatre_main_snapshots.jpg

A middle-aged woman, Sue (Beth Devries) clutches a suitcase in an attic populated with boxes and other attic-appropriate paraphernalia. She sings woefully that it's just over—this marriage spanning a couple of decades between two people who have known each other since childhood. It just can't be helped. Her plan is to leave a note (really?) explaining to her husband that she is leaving him, but her clueless husband Dan (Hugh Hastings) comes home early to her surprise. She decides not to explain what she is planning, and as a result of a stumble, some boxes spill their contents: family photos—snapshots. "This is our whole life," says husband Dan with a great sense of discovery.

For the next couple of hours, the characters in these snapshots re-animate their history. Due the skill and talent of some very capable and committed actors and director Daniel Goldstein, who contributes an excellent sense of theatricality, Snapshots develops into a sweet, sentimental story of family and love with hints about what holds us together and pulls us apart. It's entertaining, and if you enjoy musical theater, you will probably love it.

This joint production of Arizona Theatre Company and Village Theatre (in Washington state) fits well in the season full of family and sentiment.

The story is shared mostly in song, particularly the songs of musical theater muscleman Stephen Schwartz—the man responsible for Godspell, Pippin and dozens of lesser-known musicals. Oh, and Wicked. In fact, all of the tunes here originated in those musicals. Yep, that's right. We've heard these songs before.

Usually, when a producer or writer wants to re-visit songs from an acclaimed musical theater composer, they work together to create a revue. Composer and/or friends choose songs that are choice examples of composition and lyric-writing prowess and identify a concept that will lend a sense of movement that will show them off well. Each song in a musical tells a story anyway, so you have sort of an anthology of short stories.

However, Snapshots is not a musical revue. It's a (almost) new beast. Schwartz has even suggested that it's a whole new genre of theater, though I'm hoping not. If anything, it's more like a theatrical contribution to the movement to recycle, re-purpose and re-use.

Co-conceivers David Stern (who also wrote the book) and Michael Scheman spent 20 years (counting interruptions to pursue other endeavors) going through Schwartz's songs—with his blessing—to try to figure how to create this new beast. It was intended to be a tribute to the successful Schwartz, and a more fulfilling experience for writer Stern, who had come to think that a mere musical revue was not a satisfying venture for a writer. I wonder if he thought about what might be fulfilling to an audience. He wanted a full story connecting the dots of Schwartz's compositions. Ostensibly, this was not just an attempt to re-capture—and capitalize on—the overflow from Schwartz's bucket of successes.

Schwartz is no fool, though. He saw that the songs and lyrics were not exactly made for the story that seemed to be emerging, so he rewrote some of them.

What results on the ATC stage is a certainly a polished production. The ensemble, four members playing numerous roles joining Devries and Hastings, is quite good. They move from time to time and place to place without skipping a beat. The voices of Jim DeSelm, Mallory King, Tracy McDowell and Ben Wynant blend beautifully. The solos are spot on. The episodes that the story encompasses are well defined, and they flow seamlessly. Even though some seem more cloying than clever, they are offered by the group with generosity of skill and spirit.

David Farley's set actually feels like another character in the play by providing a vivid presence in allowing the past to play itself out. It is embellished by David Lee Cuthbert's lighting and projection design. Farley also worked with Tracy Christensen to create some excellent costumes, and Abe Jacob's sound works well, which is always a challenge with a musical.

Perhaps if we were given a fresh, new look at love and marriage or if the exercise had shown us a revelation of what theater can be, we might appreciate it more. Although what we see makes sense, there is also a sense of something being cobbled together. Perhaps it's because, if you are familiar with Schwartz, you recognize those songs you've heard before. True, they are different, but you can't help but wonder, "Hold on, what kind of shenanigans is this?"

Schwartz has said that he and his cohorts-in-recycling enjoy puzzles and putting together Snapshots was akin to the finding and fitting pieces together to create this new experience. There certainly are no hard and fast rules about how one goes about writing a play, and the result of this Schwartz and company endeavor is entertaining enough. However, in the end, the process has contributed nothing really new nor does it lend new insights into what theater can be. It leaves us, well, a little puzzled.

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