Theatre Reviews

Well, you can't win 'em all.

I've been accustomed to really fine productions at Fontbonne University, but last night's opening of "Edges" rather missed the mark--chiefly, I think, in the choice of material.

The composers of "Edges", Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, choose to call it a "song cycle", but don't you start thinking of Schubert and Schumann and Fauré and Poulenc and those guys. No, those esteemed song cycles are characterized by real poetry and truly beautiful music. The songs in "Edges" seem like the sweepings from the cutting-room floor of several unexceptional contemporary pop musicals. Pasek and Paul claim joint credits for music, lyrics and book:

  • The music is utterly devoid of anything resembling a melody. It's all recitative, written to support the flow of lyric.
  • The lyrics are really what the evening is about, and they are often clever, but more often they are mere maundering over adolescent angst. Well, what do we expect? Pasek and Paul wrote this piece when they were both 19, and their lyrics convey all the wisdom and insight of 19-year olds.
  • The book? What book? There is none. There is no through-story, no through-characters, no dialogue at all. These songs must stand there alone, starkers. And they just don't have the legs. One or two might serve as novelty numbers in an evening of cabaret, but all-in-all they do not make an evening of theater.

Pasek and Paul are bespangled with awards: Oscar, Grammy, Tony, Golden Globe (for other shows and movies). Now, the Nobel Committee wisely reserves the right NOT to award a prize in a year when there is no deserving recipient, and they often take this option. Tonys and Grammys and such, however, are businesses, and I guess each year they HAVE to give their award to SOMEBODY.

"Edges" is, let's face it, juvenilia. Now, fourteen years later, Pasek and Paul are entering their maturity, and we can probably expect some rather good things from them if they've not been corrupted by their youthful success.

Such an evening of so-so songs might be salvaged by really exceptional talent and more than a little design and directorial inspiration. Alas, Fontbonne offers none of this. The nine student voices are those of beginners in musical theater--some very promising, some less so. One had very serious pitch problems. Few had the power and polish and professionalism to really sell these mediocre songs.

And their design and technical support was minimal at best. A couple platforms, a couple small tables, a metal chair, panels of white sheeting hung at the back to catch the lighting. Costuming was for the most part just normal student wear. The "orchestra" was a synthesizer and a drum-set--very economical, but no matter how deftly and tirelessly played these two instruments get a little old after a while. What's more, the bare black box theater at Fontbonne, stripped to its hard wooden walls, is not acoustically supportive of our necessary attention to the lyrics.

But despite these technical limitations, and despite any vocal shortcomings that may have appeared in their solos and duets, when these young voices all join together in chorus they create a sound that is joyous and beautiful and exciting. In these divisive times it's reassuring to see once again that unity can bring power and beauty.

I look forward to Fontbonne's next offering. They're often adventurous and exciting. But I was not altogether pleased with "Edges". It ran January 31 to February 3.

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