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Saturday, May 27, 2023

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PerformanceStage ReviewIn 'Encore' at NCTC, the song remains the same

In ‘Encore’ at NCTC, the song remains the same

A flip though the company's musical numbers of the past two years should be a romp, but needs context and energy

I had a bit of a shock before watching Encore, New Conservatory’s musical revue show (running through June 12) that ends their 40th anniversary season. Fortunately, it was the good kind of shock.

NCTC has been better than most when it comes to COVID safety (reduced “checkered” seating, masking, hydroxl generators), though one wishes they’d still check for boosters on physical vax cards. Still, the aforementioned good shock came when the company’s vax checker in the lobby actually scanned the QR codes rather than simply glancing at them and waving the person through. This may be the only venue I’ve seen do this, outside of the DNA Lounge (until lax government enforcement forced them to retire it), and it’s the sort of thing all venues should be doing—especially since the pandemic isn’t over.

Even I’ll admit it’s odd to start this reviewing mentioning the vax check upgrade as the most exciting part of the evening. Still, it’s the part of the evening that had the most energy put into it. The actual show features a talented group of performers flipping through the songbook of past NCTC musicals, but none of them actually seem excited about it. The show seems like it was conceived as a one-night gala showcase that someone stretched to two hours and set for multi-week run.

The performers in question are McKay Elwood, William Giammona, Catalina Kumiski, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, and Jacqueline De Muro, with on-stage musicians Brendan Getzell, Amy Meyers, Tim Vaughan, and Joe Wicht. Each is a fine enough vocalist (though Elwood’s mic seemed to be turned off for this preview show), but their delivery has a low-wattage “going-through-the-motions” energy that makes it hard to truly engage with the numbers performed. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen a particular show from which a specific song originated, there’s a noticeable lack of context to the lyrics.

McKay Elwood, Catalina Kumiski, Anthony Rollins-Mullens*, William Giammona, and Jacqueline De Muro in ‘Encore.’ Photo by Lois Tema

For instance, although “Pioneer” (The Ballad of Little Mikey) and “Music Still Plays On” (A New Brain) come from shows with overt political leanings, they’re both songs with lyrics vague enough to where they wouldn’t provoke anyone on a first listen out of context. And these songs come in a section of the show when they’re introduced as being part of NCTC’s legacy of tackling sensitive issues head-on. (Another intro earlier alludes to “these past two years” without directly addressing COVID or the pandemic.)

The approach is fine for irreverent numbers from Avenue Q or romantic tunes from Passion, but the show comes off more like the company patting itself on the back in the most inoffensive way possible.

All of it occurs on Kuo-Hao Lo’s set, awash with shimmering curtains and crushed velvet drapes. It certainly gives the cast and musicians plenty of space in which to move around, even if they don’t do it that often. The far, upper ends of the set are made into projection walls, shaped in such a way it’s hard to make out the poster image that appears on the audience-right screen. Titles of the songs, and the shows from which they originate, appear on the audience-left screen, but they’re shown in small Monotype Corsiva font that makes them hard to read, even up close.

A lot of talent went into creating the show, and it serves as a testament to the talent NCTC has both showcased and nourished (one spoken segment boasts of world premieres by Tom Orr and Scrumbley Koldewyn), but it comes off more as a checklist rather than a grand celebration. One can forgive that that to an extent, seeing as how this 40th season pushed through after a two-year worldwide delay. Still, when you’ve actually seen the best of New Conservatory, simply running through a checklist doesn’t quite cut it.

ENCORE runs through June 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF. Tickets and info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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