Composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver is one of the millennial wunderkinds of musical theatre. Still in his early 30s, Oliver has won at least five major industry awards in the past decade, imbuing his growing catalog with rock angst, pop savvy and gothic thrills.
His best work is, in all likelihood, yet to come, as more of his musicals become licensed for regional theatre. For now, there’s “35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” which is Oliver’s own “Songs for a New World”—a selection of tapas to whet the palate. It’s comprised of 16 self-contained compositions linked together only by their provenance: Each story-song is inspired by a photograph taken by Oliver’s husband, Matthew Murphy.
With lyrics ranging from domestic abuse to addiction, and from an incorrigible child to a murderous high-school diva, “35MM” is a fine showcase for Oliver’s lyrical richness and versatility, his acid wit and aching tenderness. But little of it translates in Measure for Measure Theatre’s muddled production, running through Sept. 30 at Boca’s Countess de Hoernle Theatre.
“35MM” is Measure for Measure’s second production, a step back from its commendable “Next to Normal” this past May. The chief problem, upon which all others are predicated, is the audio. At least half the lyrics—and that’s probably a low estimate—are unintelligible. Whether the issue lies with the building’s acoustics, the microphones, the sound mixing, the enunciation of the singers themselves or a combination of the above, I’ll leave it to a sound engineer to diagnose. But I felt as lost as those times I’ve tried to watch a British detective series without the subtitles, catching a third or fourth word here and there, uselessly leaning into the TV for greater clarity. It wasn’t until I analyzed the lyrics at home, after the show, that I had the faintest idea what many of the songs were about.
Beyond the audio problems, certain of director Daimien J. Matherson’s artistic choices are suspect. Productions of “35MM” typically project Murphy’s photographs behind the stage so that viewers can follow Oliver’s thread of inspiration from the image to the lyric in real time. In Measure for Measure’s production, the photographs are displayed in the theater, behind the orchestra seats, as if in an art auction, with attendees encouraged to check them out before the show. Matherson wants fans to guess which images connect to each song, which assumes a level of familiarity with the material that not all ticketholders will share. For the uninitiated, this approach collapses the necessary connection shared by the two mediums, diluting its distinction as a hybridized piece of multimedia art.
It’s not the only way Matherson has re-imagined this production. He has also transformed a traditional concert arrangement into a show with four dancers, choreographed movement and narrative through-lines divided between hetero and same-sex relationships.
It’s possible to appreciate this ambition while lamenting the results. Kelly Johnson’s choreography feels juvenile, the dancing labored and largely unimpressive. Songs that should hit hard land softly, from one number’s strange, dispassionate swordplay to a timid take on “Caralee,” whose ostensibly demonic child just seems like a needy girl who wants some affection. When actor Christopher Alvarez strums a ukulele at the beginning of “The Seraph,” he appears to be still learning how to play his instrument; with charity, I can only assume this is an affectation of his amateur character, and not the performer.
It’s up to the kind viewer to find diamonds in the rough, and they occasionally gleam: Kelly Johnson’s sonorous voice transcending the pedestrian ballroom choreography on “The Party Goes With You,” Ernesto Gonzalez’s lovely falsetto on “Hemming and Hawing,” dancer Sarah Rose’s emotional, balletic embodiment of a battered wife in “Leave, Luanne,” even if the song’s harrowing narrative doesn’t translate to the level it should.
And that’s the problem. Nothing fully translates, not the comedy or the tragedy or anything in between. If the sound problems can be resolved before next weekend, that’s a stellar start. If not, hopefully Measure for Measure can rebound from this setback and recapture the magic that surfaced often in its “Next to Normal.”
“35MM: A Musical Exhibition” runs through Sept. 30 at Countess de Hoernle Theatre at Spanish River High School, 5100 Jog Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $39.50 general admission and $25 for students. Visit measureformeasuretheatre.com.
P.S. If I can end on a personal note, it must be said that Matherson is a class act. Set to attend yesterday’s matinee, I embarrassingly drove to the wrong theater; I had somehow convinced myself that the show was being staged at Slow Burn Theatre’s old space, at West Boca High School. I contacted Matherson right away, and he held the show a full 20 minutes as I drove like a bandit to Spanish River High School. Thank you, Daimien.