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REVIEW: "35MM"

The AKT Theatre Project

AKT musical is all about image

By Carolyn Hayes

Posted: April 23, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.

A photograph may be a fixed likeness, but it's the product of a lot of moving parts. When studying a photo as a work of art, the technique composition, exposure, use or absence of color, processing methods, and the like can be just as important to consider as the subject. Sometimes in fact, the content is beside the point.

Whether this phenomenon crosses over to theater is the question posed by The AKT Theatre Project's production of the song cycle "35MM" (music and lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver). With direction and choreography by Angie Kane Ferrante, the contemporary show explodes with technical prowess, insistent vigor, and overall luster, but makes little if any pretense of intent or purpose.

Oliver was inspired to create this work by the photography of Matthew Murphy. Specifically, 17 unrelated images beget 17 disparate tunes, performed here by the ensemble of Sebastian Adams, Marc Buchko, Jordan Fritz, Ian Hector, Gerald Hymer, Michelle King, Sarah Mikota, Katherine Nelson, and Morgan Neubacher. The simple thesis is laid out in the show's opening number, "Stop Time," whose staccato jumble of basic photography terms recurs at brief intervals throughout the single act. Mostly, though, the tunes simply run one into the other, transitioning in the blink of an eye into the next scenario and its unique assortment of characters.

The songs play out on a thrust stage that pulls together the akimbo seating arrangement of the cavernous Wyandotte Arts Center performance space. The set itself (designed by Ferrante and assistant director Jon Pigott, who are also credited with the overall show concept) is painted to evoke photographic film and further festooned with multiple prints of the photos that informed the work. These details are never referenced, instead leaving the stage to serve as a flexible canvas for the show's pulsing rock-musical feel, taking loads of inspiration from the likes of "Rent" and "Spring Awakening." Designer Harley Miah's veritable light show offers infinite permutations of bold, primary-colored looks cutting through hypoallergenic haze. Sound design (by Jim Zang and Bass Note Productions, mixed by Christine Elmore) is dependent entirely on microphone power, supplementing individual body mics with handheld ones and stands when the aesthetic calls for them. In fact, the notion of the stage picture may be the prevailing theme of the production. Take Ferrante's insistent choreography, for example, which easily taps into the power of collective group movement, with performers hitting their every turning and reaching and sinking mark without a hitch.

With the barest framework and no plot limitations, the tunes can and do ricochet through a blend of styles, gamely handled by the solid seven-piece band partly obscured behind the main stage. Some songs are third-person narratives, others soulful invocations to parties unseen, presented with solo and duet and group variety that staves off staleness. Generally, the songs seem to fall into two camps generically emotive lyrics or flat-out storytelling with rare shows of compromise. The challenge with such work is to tap into the character and passion beneath in order to find a point of connection, but not only is that not met here, it's so studiously ignored that the content of the songs feels like an afterthought at best. This may be due to lackluster music direction (Ferrante and Adriane Galea) or to insufficient rehearsal time with full sound and tech; if nothing else, the surprising frequency of swallowed or otherwise incomprehensible lyrics cannot be discounted. In the same vein, the show's most literal through line the series of inspiring photographs is given short shrift: The pictures are projected at enormous scale onto a far back wall, but are barely visible on the dark backdrop and could easily be missed altogether.

In all, "35MM" can boast flash in its prodigious design concept, as well as the clear proficiency to preserve harmony among its moving bodies, changing schemes, and quick cascade of lively songs. Yet by keeping the charged presentation representative instead of grounded, Ferrante is answering pictures with more pictures the work is competent, but it may inspire the viewer to ponder whether theater as an art form can be sustained on technique alone.

SHOW DETAILS: The AKT Theatre Project's "35MM" continues at Wyandotte Arts Center, 81 Chestnut, Wyandotte, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday & 2 p.m. Sunday through May 4. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $15. For information: 734-258-8370 or www.akttheatre.com.

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