Theater with no refunds

University student group Crisis Point loses funding, but marches on in a ‘New World’

by Matt Graham

When the University’s funding committee cut Crisis Point Theatre’s support two years ago from $24,000 annually to zero, it came as a major shock to its members. While the group was able to secure $2,000 last year, that money didn’t come without a cost.

“Songs for a New World”
WHERE: Old Arizona Theater, 2821 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 22, 23 and 24
TICKETS: $5 for students, $7 for general population. www.oldarizona.com/theatre.html

“Last year, we lost track of who we were,” said Crisis Point artistic director and third year theater student Nicky Fritz, about the student group’s time consuming and only partially successful efforts to get its funding back.

“This year, theater is our primary goal, not $24,000,” she said. “It’d be nice, I’m not gonna lie, butÖ”

The funding challenges have forced Crisis Point to get creative with how it does theater. After focusing on original productions last year, they have decided to ring in their 2007 season with the fittingly titled “Songs for a New World,” a Broadway-style revue by New York theater composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown.

“Songs” is not your typical musical. There are no speech-y interludes or overarching narratives to carry the song cycle forward.

Instead, the tunes are linked by a sort of thematic consistency. Brown compiled the songs in 1995 when he was 25 years old. Consequently (though they weren’t originally intended to go together) many of the songs deal with the familiar themes of young adulthood: the search for love, nostalgia for a simpler past, anticipation of the future, coming to grips with one’s faith and all the other little triumphs and tragedies that accompany the self’s quest to define its place in the world.

Each song has its own characters, refers to its own events and has its own internal consistency. Each one sounds like it belongs in its own extended, traditional musical. In effect, the audience becomes co-writer, being forced by the format to construct entire stage productions in their heads, with clues tossed out in the lyrics and the accents, props and pantomimed behaviors of the performers as the only points of reference.

But as soon as you’ve got the plot figured out, it’s time to move onto the next one.

The songs take widely divergent angles of attack. One number, “Surabaya Santa,” performed by Katherine Groth, features a neglected wife angrily confronting her husband, Nick, about his curious obsession with Christmas. While it’s not immediately clear, it soon becomes apparent that the song is a tale told from the point of view of the ever-neglected Mrs. Claus herself.

But while a song like that looks at the lighter side of relationship issues, other pieces in the production take on a more solemn tone.

“I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” performed by Mariya Maragos, is sung from the point of view of a young woman who can’t help but compare herself to (what she perceives to be) her cowardly friends. Maragos’ voice soars like Ariel’s from “The Little Mermaid,” detailing all the various obstacles she’s not afraid to take on as she prepares to face reality.

But by the end of the song, as her overpowering voice begins to gently fade, it becomes clear that she is indeed a human being with her own fear, though she never admits it as such: “Never stop the calling of the challenge/ Blessing on the water and the stones/ And David loves me – he’s afraid to tell me/ David loves me – he’s afraid to hold me/ And he’ll always beÖ”

Brown’s jazz-influenced, pop-rock theater pieces are all easy to hum and catchy with rhythms that seem to visibly bounce through the air, but they wouldn’t succeed as they do without the musical talents of the ten-person ensemble cast, working with the help of musical director and pianist Avedis Manoogian and bassist Miles Sibly.

The show, which features a mix of solo and ensemble performances, was chosen in part to highlight the melodic abilities that lie hidden in the University’s theater department.

Because the department only puts on one musical every two years, Fritz said “Songs for a New World” will “give the students an opportunity they might not normally get. So many of our theater students can sing, and they might not ever get a chance to show it off.”

The show will be Crisis Point’s only production in the Twin Cities proper this season. The rest will be in and around campus, “somewhere in the grass on the West Bank,” Fritz said.

Without any reserved practice space, and with just enough money squeezed out of the University and the likes of Coca-Cola to afford the rights to the songs and the stage at the Old Arizona Theater, putting such a tightly-choreographed performance together in a little more than a month’s time has been a challenge for the all-student cast and crew. But as is often the case, it’s the overcoming of challenges that imbues the work with a luster that rarely accompanies life’s more unfettered efforts.

“The fund cuts have been a change in how we conduct theater in general,” Fritz said. “It forces you to explore your resources, to examine what theater means to you.”

Sounds like the basis for a Jason Robert Brown song.