Curtain Rises: Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre ‘Brings It On’ for 39th annual season
The 2019 season is the 39th step for Charles Richter on his way to the 40th anniversay of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), which he cofounded.
“They’re already planning the 40th celebration,” says Richter, Professor of Theatre Arts, Muhlenberg College, where he has been teaching for 41 years, with 25 years as chair of the college’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
When asked about retirement, Richter, who will be 68 on June 16, quips, “I’m not thinking that far ahead.”
What Richter is thinking about is the 2019 season:
“Bring it On: The Musical,” Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, June 13-30; and
“Anything Goes,” Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, July 11-28.
Performances for both shows are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees the first Saturday and every Sunday.
Also, “Bohemia,” Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion, June 26-July 27. Performances are 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
“Bring it On: The Musical,” based on the 2000 movie written by Jessica Bendinger, has music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyrics by Amanda Green and Miranda, and book by Jeff Whitty.
Whitty received a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for “Avenue Q” (2003) and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. with Nicole Holofcener, for the film, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018).
Kitt was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre and Best Orchestrations and shared shared the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Brian Yorkey for “Next to Normal” (2009).
Green collaborated with Kitt on the 2006 stage adaptation of the film “High Fidelity” (2000).
“Bring It On” (2012) is the “bridge” Broadway musical between Miranda’s “In the Heights” (2008, receiving four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography) and “Hamilton” (2015, receiving 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical; 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama).
There have been six “Bring It On” movies: “Bring It On” (2000), a theatrical release, and five direct-to-video releases, “Bring It On Again” (2004), “Bring It On: All or Nothing” (2006), “Bring It On: In It to Win It” (2007), “Bring It On: Fight to the Finish” (2009) and “Bring It On: Worldwide Cheersmack” (2017).
“Bring It On: The Musical,” which is set in the world of cheerleading contests, ran on Broadway August-December 2012.
“Bring It On: The Musical” has one of the most unconventional musical plot devices since rock ‘n’ roll star Conrad Birdie showed up in Sweet Apple, Ohio, in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960): that of school-board redistricting.
One of the lead characters, Campbell, is “cheerleading royalty” at Truman High School. In her senior year, she’s chosen captain of the cheerleading squad. Redistricting sends her to neighboring Jackson High School. There, Campbell befriends the dance crew leader, Danielle, in time for national championships.
Says Richter, “It tells a story that is very contemporary. it deals with two competiing cheerleaders’ teams. There’s sort of white people’s music in it and black people’s and Latino people’s music in it.
“In the [Muhlenberg] summer theater, we’re trying to do pieces that more reflect the contemporary world.
“Jim Peck [Dr. James H. Peck] brought it [‘Bring It On’] to me. It’s really solid, with a strong libretto and terrific score.”
The show is directed by Peck. Professor of Theatre Theatre & Dance at Muhlenberg College. Peck directed Miranda’s “In the Heights” for the MSMT 2016 season. Choreography is by Samuel Antonio Reyes and music direction is by Ed Bara, who also worked on “In the Heights.”
“We have a choreographer, but we also have a cheerleading director,” says Richter of “Bring it On.”
Muhlenberg College, Class of 2018 graduate, Gabrielle Hines, is the show’s “cheerographer.” At Muhlenberg, Hines was a cheerleader and a theater major. She was in MSMT productions of “In the Heights,” “Hair” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Says Richter, “Most of the cast are Muhlenberg students. We’ve put together a very interesting, diverse cast.
“The choreography is a mix of cheerleading and hip-hop,” Richter says.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is very good at writing music that is contemporary but also user-friendly. It’s music that has great appeal. He’s managed to develop a sound that is organic to Broadway but also organic to contemporary music styles,” Richter says.
“Unlike ‘West Side Story’ , which was created by a bunch of middle-aged Jewish guys, this is a piece created by a guy who is of the culture.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda was raised on Broadway but also contemporary Hispanic and Black style music, and he can be true to contemporary culture. He’s a very accomplished lyricist.
“Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart ... Miranda has the skills that puts him in that realm.
“He’s developed musicals that tell stories in highly-effective ways but in contemporary musical forms. He’s figured out how to make contemporary musical styles work on the Broadway stage. And that’s a well-deserved claim to fame.
“The great thing that Miranda has done is bring high artistry to contemporary musical theater forms.
“The movie [‘Bring It On’] was kind of a teen flick about cheerleaders. But because of the writers, they elevated the stage musical to a whole new level. We’re going to try to do it in a way that will connect with the real strengths of the material.
“In today’s world, with the kind of polarization, and the kinds of ethnic tensions, a show that depicts characters with a variety of ethnic and gender identities, learning and discovering how to get along and have a brghter future is something that’s important to put on the stage. At the same time, it’s doing it in a way that’s vastly entertaining and will appeal to a very broad-based audience.”
“Bring It On: The Musical” is recommended for theater-goers ages 10 and older.
In recent seasons, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre has balanced the bold and new with the tried and true.
If “Bring It On: The Musical” is the bold and new, “Anything Goes” is the tried and true.
“Anything Goes,” Cole Porter’s Jazz Age musical, includes American Songbook standards like “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top.” MSMT did the musical 20 years ago.
“It’s one of my favorites,” says Richter, who directs the show.
“Of all the musicals of the 1930s, it’s perhaps the one that has been the most popular because it has a tremendous score by Cole Porter and it has a wonderful libretto with a lot of dancing.”
“Anything Goes” opened on Broadway in 1934, running for 420 performances and was the fourth longest-running musical of the 1930s.
The show, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, has a book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, which was revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
There were Broadway revivals of “Anything Goes” in 1987 and 2011. Movie versions of the musical were released in 1936 and 1956.
“What was great about the ‘30s musicals, ‘Anything Goes’ has in spades,” says Richter, “with lots of tap dancing. It’s fast and funny and when it breaks into song, it does so in a great way.”
The MSMT production has music direction by Bryan L. Wade and choreography by Shelley Oliver.
“Anything Goes” is set on an ocean liner traveling from New York to London. Billy Crocker is a stowaway who’s in love with heiress Hope Harcourt, who’s engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Nightclub singer Reno Sweeney and Public Enemy No. 13, Moonface Martin, help Billy win Hope’s heart.
MSMT veterans in the show include Mia Scarpa (Reno Sweeney), Robert Fahringer (Moonface Martin) and Jarrod Yuskauskas (Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, a British aristocrat).
“All ‘30s musicals have a British aristocrat. It’s a running gag,” observes Richter.
“Shelley Oliver is doing choreography. She’s a ‘Star Search’ [TV show, 1983-1995] national champion. She’s one of the great tap masters.
“We have a wonderful ensemble of singers and dancers. It’s an evening of high-energy entertainment. It’s one Porter hit after another,” Richter says.
The MSMT 2019 seaon includes another collaboration and world premiere circus arts piece.
“Bohemia” is billed as “the final chapter” in Noah Dach’s trilogy, following “Wild” and “Tal: Beyond Imagination,” which had world premieres at MSMT.
As with its predecessors, the show has feats of aerial acrobatics, juggling, clowning, magic and dance. The show is intended for children and adults.
“Bohemia” tells the story of a group of childhood friends, dreaming of a spectacular future: space travel, spotlights, and true love. As their dreams unfold, they embark on a journey of self-discovery, making the brave leap together into an unknown future.
Dach, a Muhlenberg College graduate and adjunct faculty member in Muhlenberg’s dance program, has assembled several alumni of his past MSMT circus shows for “Bohemia.”
Richter says the 2019 season of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre is “a summer of great entertainment.
“We’ve been selling very, very well. Last summer was one of our most succdssful.”
Tickets: Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre and Dance box office, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 W. Chew St., Allentown; muhlenberg.edu/theatre/SMT; 484-664-3333