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MTC readies ‘Songs’ for a socially distanced world

for a socially distanced world

A cast that ranges from area teens to a Broadway veteran will be a part of Millennial Theatre Company’s production of “Songs for a New World.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced MTC to scrap its inaugural season at the Robins Theatre, MTC Director Joe Asente and Music Director Savannah Florkowski opted for an online production of an early work by Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the musical “The Last Five Years” and won Tony Awards for his work on “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”

While losing its live season was frustrating (the statewide shutdown was announced two days before the opening night of “Shrek the Musical”), assembling a cast with performers from eight states and two countries wouldn’t have been possible any other way than online.

When staged live, “New World” traditionally is performed by a cast of two men and two women with each performer playing multiple roles. Asente ended up with a cast of nearly 40 performers.

“I went in hoping for about 15 people,” he said. “Honestly I didn’t know if we’d get that many to audition, but about 75 people sent in audition tapes, and we wanted to give as many as we could an opportunity to do something, since there isn’t a whole lot going on right now.

“We expanded and added an ensemble. Instead of just having the soloists in the big numbers, we have people especially dedicated to that, because there are several group numbers in the show.”

The cast features Lisa Howard, Natalie Kovacs, Ryan Lamb, Maria DiDonato, Sheldon Markel, Sarah Kinser, Chelsea Davis, Isabella Audia, Will Ellis, Sammie Gurd, Joshua Senn, Shane Russo, Rachel Franek, Jordan Holliday, Liz Amstutz, John Cruz, Clay Miller, Kari Ringer, Samantha DeCrane, Lauren Stebelton, Krystin Skidmore, Nate Summers, Riley Burke, Heather Curtis, Rachel Ruggieri, Jennifer Barnaba, Makayla McIntosh, Tyler Richardson, DJ Davis, Brittany Smile, Emily Minch, Lohgan Talbert, Haley Tura, Elizabeth Domer, Addie Wisniewski, Meganne Evans, Jordyn Freetage, Alecia Hetrick and Seth Jerabek.

Lisa Howard is an Akron native who won a Drama Desk Award as part of the original cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Her other Broadway credits include “South Pacific,” “9 to 5,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “It Should Have Been You” (for which she received a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding actress in a musical) and “Escape to Margaritaville.”

Asente saw Howard on Broadway in “It Should Have Been You” and got to meet her backstage, and Florkowski was in the same show choir in Akron that Howard once belonged to and got to accompany her when she came back for a concert.

“We had those connections,” Asente said. “We just thought there’s no harm in asking. I sent her an email, and she was thrilled to be asked. She chose her song out of the show, and I had the same collaborative atmosphere with her as the rest of the cast. I think everyone was super excited to work with someone of that caliber, even if it was virtually. I think it really elevates the show.”

The musical is a collection of songs performed by characters, “Who are on the precipice of change, who have to make a choice,” Asente said. In a stage production, those stories unfold on a blank stage with limited props and costumes.

Asente and Florkowski watched several Zoom-style productions, which Asente referred to as “Zoom-sicals,” and they knew that’s not the approach they wanted to take.

He described the resulting production as more cinematic, with many of the performances digitally filmed on location, from Mill Creek MetroParks to New York City. Other sequences had the performers filmed in front of a green screen, so they could be added into shots with the other actors.

“The hardest part was trying to edit everything together,” he said. “With the large vocal numbers, we recorded the vocals first and the video later so we could assemble the vocals together. Having to get 35 different voices to blend and balance out with the discrepancy in sound quality, the different recording volumes of the initial audio files was complex in nature.”

All of this was done with the creative team in a different location than the performers.

“I would say that the biggest challenge is working on vocal technique and not being in person,” Florkowski said. “I can’t show exactly what to do in all cases. It is also hard to work on certain vocal problems that may arise when the actor adds their style to the character. Overall, it was helpful to be able to work on specific problems and record parts to really nail down harmonies.”

Asente had conversations with the actors about their portrayals and then gave them spreadsheets detailing the different camera angles and shots he would need to create the video he imagined as well as lighting tutorials to avoid shadows and other problems.

“I had to relinquish most of my directorial powers to them to kind of create on their own, which was a little nerve-wracking. I couldn’t be there when they were shooting, so there was a lot of trial and error … It was very collaborative in nature. We really decided it together with each actor bringing their own ideas to it as well.”

“Songs for a New World” will be available to view beginning Oct. 24. While the online production was born out of necessity, Asente said he would be willing to consider doing it again, even after live performances are possible.

“I think we’re uniquely positioned to excel in this format,” he said. “We existed so long as a theater without a home, adapting to an environment. We didn’t have a specific space to create something easily, so this was a natural transition for us.

“And millennials are the technology generation. It was a learning experience for us, but not as large as it could have been. But our goal is to get back to in-person theater as soon as humanly possible.”

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