This review is of the opening night performance of Coming Home on Thursday, Oct. 20.
Upon walking into Frederick Loewe, the University of Redlands’ black box theatre, I was immediately transported into what seemed to be trying to evoke the feel of a speakeasy, with its small, intimate performance space and blue-hued lighting. The sparse set was marked only by the backdrop of generic geometric art, an oblong block upon which the performers sang (with a couple of deviations), and a small piano in the upstage right corner. It suggested very little of what was about to unfold.
What did unfold was as bare as the set, and ever so slightly lacking in its direction. Although the simple staging and general stasis of the performers put focus on the vocals, it did little to further support the beautiful work being done by the students; the evening was thus punctuated by hesitancy on the part of director, Gavin Thrasher, who also came onstage in between songs to shuffle nervously through cue cards and deliver commentary that nimbly straddled the line between informative and superfluous.
The students performing showed none of this hesitation. The company opened with an ensemble a capella rendition of “Gold” from Once: The Musical, and it was immediately clear that the audience could expect an uncommonly polished and powerful show, with renditions of songs that often rivalled, and sometimes even surpassed, their Broadway counterparts.
Although the evening had an overall more subdued tone, there were moments of levity, notably brought by Sarah Smallman performing songs from Kinky Boots and Side Show, the latter in a duet with Amanda Speidel. Thomas Roberts and duo Caroline Boyll and Roderick Flucas also elicited laughter with songs from 35mm and Dogfight.
The revue was truly successful at its attempt to tug at the heartstrings, with highlight performances of songs from Merrily We Roll Along and Waitress by powerhouses Boyll and alumnus guest singer Olivia Canning. Rounding out the talented cast was the crystalline, steady strength of Allyson Reed and Enya Murray; the subtle, rich tones of Dana Kotkin and Sarah Baca; the smooth, darker timbres of Roberts and Flucas; and a frantic, evocative performance by Speidel. The penultimate number, Marinda Convis’ powerful letter to a deceased father, “Dear Daddy” from Welcome to My Life, even visibly affected Thrasher who was shakily trying to regain his composure to deliver the final soundbite of the night before the rousing closing ensemble rendition of “Light” from Next to Normal.
In addition to the students performing, the show also featured lighting design by students currently enrolled in the Theatre Arts department’s Lighting Design Techniques class, providing the production with an occasionally eclectic combination of lighting signatures.
Other performances during Homecoming Weekend featured three other recent alumni: Becca Allen, Angela Mihelich, and Chris Poole singing songs from Sunset Boulevard, The Wiz, and FORWARD: A New Song Cycle.
[photo provided by University of Redlands’ theatre department]