- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

No doubt you will be hearing and seeing more from the young stars of “The Stephen Schwartz Project,” a world-premiere revue devoted to the Broadway composer at the MetroStage. One of the cast members, Amber Iman Moorer, is still in college but possesses the poise and roof-raising voice of a seasoned professional, as does another student performer, Jobari Parker-Namdar. These actors join four other highly polished newcomers, Florrie Bagel, Priscilla Cuellar, Clif Walker and Andrew Sonntag, in addition to the Helen Hayes-nominated stage veteran Felicia Curry.

The cast’s youthful appeal and skill with the demands of full-out Broadway-style singing make “The Stephen Schwartz Project” worth seeing. It’s also a plus if you are a fan of the uncomplicated, emotional bombast of Mr. Schwartz, known for such musicals as “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked” as well as writing lyrics to Alan Menken’s music for the animated movies “Pocahontas,” “Prince of Egypt” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Miss Bagel enlivens “West End Avenue” with her big, warm voice and ebullience and sings “Since I Gave My Heart Away” with admirably straightforward lyricism. Miss Cuellar also eschews the vocal furbelows for simple, heartfelt singing in her solos “Defying Gravity” (the showstopping Act 1 closer in “Wicked”) and “Where Is the Warmth.” Miss Curry knows just how to build to a shattering pinnacle, which she does in the songs “Manchild Lullaby” and the beginning of “Ain’t It Good” before the number disintegrates into lunatic fan-waving and gospel testifying.

What is off-putting about “The Stephen Schwartz Project” is how blisteringly rococo it seems. Conceived and directed by Michael J. Bobbitt, the show is a bloated grab bag of tap-dancing (inept and clunky), interpretive dance, hip-hop, disco, cane-twirling, roller-skating and the artistic flinging of glow sticks. The director has the poor cast members wearing everything from massive Afro wigs to silver platform shoes and Keystone Kops uniforms.

The modest MetroStage stage threatens to cave in from the sheer weight of overkill. “Day by Day,” for example, is belted out in three languages. Why?

Can’t they just stand there and sing once in a while — without the pelvic thrusts and scarily wide, nearly demented smiles you commonly see on Mentos mints commercials?

It’s not as if Mr. Schwartz is a composer who needs a push to make his songs workable or that this production is lacking talent — far from it. Relaxing into the material and taking it down a few notches would make “The Stephen Schwartz Project” something that does not bring tears to your eyes for all the wrong reasons.

**

WHAT: “The Stephen Schwartz Project,” conceived and directed by Michael J. Bobbitt, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 25

TICKETS: $35 to $40

PHONE: 800/494-8497

WEB SITE: www.metro stage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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