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NYMF 2016: Camp Rolling Hills; Newton's Cradle; Single

This is TheaterMania's sixth and final review roundup of the 2016 New York Musical Festival.

The cast of Camp Rolling Hills at NYMF. Back row (from left): Will Varvaro, James Ignacio, Mitchell Sink, Jonathan Elier, David Hoffman. Front row (from left): Jamie Martin Mann, Grace Rundhaug, Carrie Berk, Sammy Webster, Sammy Webster, Beatrice Tulchin, and Sophia Gennusa.
(© Allison Stock)

Camp Rolling Hills

By David Gordon

The hormones are in full force in Camp Rolling Hills, a truly delightful new musical about pre-teens navigating the choppy waters of romance at sleepaway camp. While the book (by David Spiegel and Stacy Davidowitz) and score (by the pair in addition to David's brother Adam Spiegel) could use some tightening, this piece of work shows a great deal of promise, with a sensibility that appeals to adults just as much as youngsters.

As far as plot goes, it's relatively simple: Robert Benjamin (James Ignacio) is a new kid in a world filled with returning campers. After meeting his male bunkmates and earning the nickname "Smelly" (not because he has an odor, but because everyone needs a pseudonym), he begins to fall for Stephanie "Slimey" Gregson (Beatrice Tulchin). A relationship blooms amid bunk raids and other traditional camp activities.

While the cast is made up almost entirely of kids, Camp Rolling Hills is a show with a distinctly grown-up sense of humor. Spiegel and Davidowitz's book is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, while their lyrics are super smart (case in point: a song called "Chicks Before Boys," sung after one of the girls has her heart broken by a boy back home). Adam Spiegel provides a jazzy score that's very likable. But there is one caveat on all counts: Each scene and each song has a tendency to go on too long. Cutting verses, or compressing some of the longer stretches of dialogue could only make the piece stronger.

Director Jill Jaysen is perfectly in tune with the subversive sense of humor of the authors. As a result, she guides her young cast to outstanding performances. As the romantic leads, Ignacio and Tulchin make a lovely pair. Their work is even more commendable, considering how young they are, when we realize how invested we are of their puppy love working out. In the main supporting role, Sophia Gennusa (one of the original Tony-honored Matildas) is superbly funny, with a line delivery wise beyond her years.

With such enthusiasm from the rest of its young cast, Camp Rolling Hills is the place to be. It takes us back to our glory days of summer, when all we wanted to do was hang out, make friends, and have a lot of laughs along the way.

Heath Saunders (center) and the cast of Newton's Cradle, directed by Victoria Clark, for NYMF at the Duke on 42nd Street.
(© Michael Kushner)

Newton's Cradle

By Hayley Levitt

With The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time finishing out its Tony-winning run and Dear Evan Hansen being ushered onto the Broadway scene, the theater community seems to be experiencing a wave of empathy and interest surrounding individuals who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Unlike these other two titles, which shy away from the label "autism," Newton's Cradle — written by the mother-son team of Kim and Heath Saunders and directed by Tony-winning actress Victoria Clark — faces the term head-on and gives a moving argument as to why its application should not mean a life of imprisonment.

As one of the most nuanced entries in this year's festival, Newton's Cradle is structured to replicate the brain function of someone on the spectrum — nonlinear vignettes thrown at us until the audience can finally piece together the puzzle. Heath Saunders, in addition to writing the show's incisive contemporary score, stars as Evan Newton, the young man struggling with autism, while simultaneously facing life's un-"special" challenges: Negotiating with his girlfriend Charlie (a sympathetic Rachel Kara Perez), feuding with his brother Michael (an emotional performance by his real-life brother Trent Saunders), and recalling life-changing moments with his parents (played by David DeWitt and stunning soprano Andrea Jones-Sojola).

The action in every time period is set at the Newton family cabin in the Alaska wilderness where Evan often runs off to find solace in the patterns of nature. While we skip over decades at a moment's notice, the majority of the story unfolds on a weekend when Evan meets his brother's fiancé Chelsea (a grounded performance by the talented Rose Hemingway). Evan's "needs" — as people like to call them — quickly throw a monkey wrench into everyone's plans.

The subject matter, paired with the minimal amount of plot the musical ends up putting forth, leaves the door wide open to trite sentiments, clichéd lyrics, and clinical sermons. Yet, the Saunders family taps a compelling vein within the genre of musical theater, striking a balance that makes Newton's Cradle sing.

Chris Gleim and Rachel Stern star in Single, written by Karen Bishko and Nat Bennett, for NYMF at the June Havoc Theatre.
(© Shira Friedman)


By Hayley Levitt

Composer, lyricist, and co-librettist Karen Bishko channels her personal dating woes into the new musical Single as part of this year's New York Musical Featival. As Bishko notes in the program, she has sculpted the plot around several of her own post-breakup ballads for the purpose of capturing the essence of life as an aging single girl trying to find love (and recover from love lost) in the 21st century. The concise title suggests a focused exploration of this common experience. The story, however, wanders in a few too many directions for that lonesome title to handle.

We begin with Leah (a compellingly wry Rachel Stern) as a 20-year-old pop star singing what we soon learn was her hit '90s song "Voices." Flash forward 16 years and she's a buttoned-up divorce lawyer helping distraught women take their exes to the cleaners while suppressing her old urges to rock out in fluorescent green wigs.

We learn that Leah's change of career (and overall phobia of relationships) stems primarily from a long-term relationship with an airline pilot, played by Chris Gleim, who also plays all of Leah's other suitors that appear throughout the show (Stephanie Martignetti in turn plays all of the musical's tangential female characters). Leah's quest to no longer be single quickly melds with a separate struggle to return to her music — two threads of plot that never harmonize quite as Bishko and her fellow book writer Nat Bennett intend.

Leah's married best friend Jessica (the charming Jenna Pastuszek) is the engine behind Leah's musical journey of self-discovery, encouraging Leah to get coaching from her favorite '90s star Gabriel (Ari Brand playing a convincingly introspective musician) who also has lost his artistic voice over the past few decades — though little is said to explain why that is. Filling out the already overstuffed story, Jessica throws in the additional hot topic of procreation as she battles with issues of fertility and a ticking biological clock.

Bishko's score offers a collection of pleasant tunes with flickers of Natalie Imbruglia and Lisa Loeb authenticating the show's nostalgic '90s vibe. The lyrics, however, have a difficult time masking the self-indulgent sorrow, which — though a rite of passage post-breakup — may be better relegated to a private diary. The single-girl experience is one many women would be eager to commiserate with. But in a world of ADD dating where the hardships and horror stories fill up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, a little more focus and a little less self-pity would be a refreshing change of pace.