Musical revues are like politics. Sometimes they can become extremely divisive. If the songs favor progressive choices, there’s great risk in throwing the conservative-leaning fans into a tizzy because they didn’t hear tunes from The Sound of Music or anything written before the dawn of television. On the other hand, if a program is full of Golden Age standards, those who know Hamilton like their back of their hand will be bored to death. But in spite of boldly embracing progressive tastes, including numbers from Broadway flops and little-known off-Broadway properties, the Epiphany Players Drama Ministry of Epiphany Lutheran Church miraculously manages to please both sides of the musical theatre aisle with Why We Tell the Story, the troupe’s 29th annual summer presentation featuring nearly 70 performers.
Conceived and created by director/choreographer Megan Wean Sears and music director David Brush, Why We Tell the Story is an enjoyably breezy, eclectic array of 26 songs simply reflecting the emotional ups and downs of life. In fact, the title is borrowed from the spirited finale of lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical Once On This Island, joyously presented by Epiphany in 2014. In the song, Ahrens pinpoints seven reasons why the journey of life is ripe for storytelling, specifically addressing pain, love, grief, hope, and faith. Sears and Brush admirably selected a variety of tunes that fit contextually for the seven sections. Composers Jason Robert Brown, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Stephen Schwartz, and Stephen Sondheim are notable for being chosen more than once.
The large, multi-generational, vocally stunning cast confidently, energetically and tenderly inhabits the wide-ranging material. Near the outset, during Life Is Why, Jackie Darnell, Bridget Miley and John Benjamin terrifically convey the heartache and nuances within The I Love You Song from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Next, as Pain Is Why leaps forth, a defiant Ella Brunt leads the children’s ensemble (cutely clothed in schoolhouse uniformity by Kim Harvey and Lori Watamaniuk) in a rousing Revolting Children from Matilda. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd from Sweeney Todd, headlined by an imposing Brian Hoff, concludes the section with appropriately eerie resonance. Love Is Why charms due to the graceful elegance of Sarah Portman, Meredith Russ, Mary Bryan, Abbey Fry, Zoe Miller, Kathy Meyer, and Margo Russ dancing to She’s Got a Way from Movin’ Out (warmly accented by Andrew Hackworth’s saxophone solo), Jack Issler and Kara Miller’s touching You Matter to Me duet from Waitress, and John Benjamin and Brett Greenwood’s poignant Dear Theodosia from Hamilton. Grief Is Why includes Kathy Meyer’s wistful, commanding, go for broke Memory from Cats, Reese Hornick’s firm Everlasting from Tuck Everlasting, Michael Shannon’s reflective yet dynamic Dust and Ashes from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and the truly marvelous trio of Margo Russ, Jessica Pettit and Andrew Gochenaur incredibly attacking the anguish, glee and resentment fueling Superboy and the Invisible Girl from Next to Normal, an encore-worthy rendition on par with the original Broadway cast.
It’s tough to top Superboy and the Invisible Girl, but Hope Is Why majestically closes Act 1 with a knockout Till We Reach That Day from Ragtime superbly led by Meghan Rupper. Surprisingly, Sears leaves the song’s relevant message to the imagination (footage of Charlottesville, Pulse Orlando, Sandy Hook Elementary School, or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would’ve been a huge asset), but the number, heightened by Matthew Benjamin’s striking lighting design, is a highpoint nonetheless despite the missed opportunity for multimedia. After intermission, Hope Is Why continues its dominance with a thrilling One Day More from Les Misérables (Meredith Russ is particularly strong in the role of Éponine), Taryn Lightcap, Abbey Fry and Margo Russ delightfully joining forces for the comical I Know It’s Today from Shrek the Musical, the phenomenal return of Rupper absolutely slaying The Wizard of I from Wicked as if Schwartz secretly wrote it just for her and she’s already in negotiations to play Elphaba in the film version, and the splendid, costume-savvy Tonight Quintet from West Side Story wonderfully led by Kathy Meyer (in fiery red as Anita along with the Sharks), Andrew Gochenaur (in optimistic yellow as Tony), Megan Rehberg (white and yellow as Maria), and Mitchell Goecke (in blue as Riff along with the Jets).
In addition, Faith Is Why consists of Liza Russ’ spunky My Grand Plan from The Lightning Thief, Meredith Russ’ beautifully complex Breathe from In the Heights, and Jackie Darnell’s soaring, operatic I Still Believe from Amazing Grace. Lastly, You Are Why centers on Samuel Layman’s heartfelt lead vocals on the introspective You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hansen featuring Siobhan McAleer, Eric Pettit and Zoe Miller and incorporating attributes each cast member associates with themselves such as compassionate, kind, determined, and worthy.
In a break from tradition, this show is only slated for one weekend. So, go ahead and quickly plan to escape the heat at Epiphany. You’ll be glad you did.
Why We Tell the Story continues Saturday, July 20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 21 at 2:30 p.m. at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 6430 Far Hills Avenue, Centerville. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 37 minutes. Advance ticket sales are $15 for adults, $10 for students (any age) and seniors (60 and older), $5 for children 5 and under, and $20 for front row. Tickets sold at the door are $17 for adults, $12 for students (any age) and seniors (60 and older), $7 for children 5 and under, and $22 for front row. For tickets or more information, call (937) 433-1449 ext. 105 or e-mail [email protected]