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Theater review: Life ain’t a cabaret for At The Fountain’s ‘Oh Say, Can You Sing?’
Photo: DANIEL CHAN/The Stanford Daily.

Theater review: Life ain’t a cabaret for At The Fountain’s ‘Oh Say, Can You Sing?’

The past month has been a firestorm of political upheaval and precariousness. From the shocking election results to the sadness, fear, anger and violence that have followed, this country is in a fraught state filled with uncertainty. From this uncertainty, artists have taken to their craft to react, speak out and find respite. The Fountain Theatrical’s premiere performance of the year attempted to provide a similar moment of relief, a celebration of the values we hope to be American of inclusivity and diversity. Unfortunately, “Oh Say Can You Sing?” fell short of this goal, providing instead a show riddled with vocal issues, inconsistency and ambiguity, ultimately coming across as an excuse to sing musical numbers from shows we will not see on this campus anytime soon (“Hamilton,” among others).

Define America. Too broad? Define American musicals. Do we mean shows written by American artists? Shows about the United States? Shows simply set in the United States? Shows about American values? Songs with the word “America” in them? Simply put, it is difficult to build a cabaret — an inherently disjointed performance structure — around such a loose theme. Though framed with good intentions, “Oh Say Can You Sing?” felt disorganized, a set of isolated musical numbers held together by a thread on the verge of snapping. From “Hair” to “West Side Story,” fast forward to “American Idiot” and “If/Then,” vaguely related selections with wildly different messages flailed at the “American” sentiment. Art for art’s sake is all well and good, but this performance tried desperately to force an audience to pick up on a deeper meaning where none could be found.

Technical elements of the show further exposed the inconsistency plaguing the production. The set was a cluttered jumble of mismatching prop pieces, some of which were never touched throughout the course of the show. The Nitery Theater, as a black box, can easily feel empty unless strategically and thoughtfully used; this production seemed content to slap some empty bottles of liquor, assorted chairs and lamps, Betsy Ross’ flag and a room divider on an empty stage and call it quits. The same thought apparently went into disheveled and superfluous costume changes as even within scenes, actors were unable to agree on the extent to which they must assume a new character’s identity over their standard blacks. The disarray could have been managed with a larger tech team, yet the production was helmed by a single producer (Robin Yoo ‘19) attempting to cover all technical aspects herself.  

In a show bedeviled with vocal issues, from tone to pacing to pitch, a few talents stood out and absolutely shone. Lorin Phillips ‘20 was a powerhouse of a singer. Her performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy” highlighted her dynamism as a singer, with her colossal belts nearly shaking the theater. In “Love While You Can” from “If/Then,” Phillips’ solos added much needed emotional depth to an otherwise bubblegum-flavored showcase.

Another incredible talent in the show was Victor Ragsdale ‘19. His solo performance of “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime” carried immense power and captivated the audience. While some performers failed to distinguish their characters from piece to piece, Ragsdale did a stellar job of keeping the performance interesting and differentiating the characters he portrayed from one another through clear choices in affectations vocally and physically.

Perhaps one of the most impressive performances of the show aside from the above mentioned was the one by Paul Gregg ‘17, music director and accompaniment for the cabaret. Gregg’s dexterous work on the keyboard consistently elevated the performance, keeping the music going when vocal performances floundered. Vocalists lost their place, sporadically changed their pace or generally struggled to push the show forward, and Gregg attempted — and nearly succeeded — to hide their errors from the audience, only just saving the performance from complete breakdown.

Though “Oh Say Can You Sing?” may have fallen short of the goals it set for itself — to have the audience “laugh, cry, think and feel” as stated on its posters — the overall performance proved an opportunity for performers to showcase their love of musical theater on stage. As a format, these kind of cabarets provide an excellent opportunity to see theater in a different way, to give performers and technicians the chance to showcase their talents on a smaller, more intimate scale. With a more focused theme, a flush tech team and a cast filled with passionate performers as featured in this show, ATF’s annual fall cabaret could see a great amount of success in the future. As yet, it still dreams of a revolution that has not quite reached the horizon.

Contact Alex Aguilar at aaguila2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Alejandra Aguilar

Alejandra Aguilar is a sophomore from Washington, D.C. majoring in Political Science (fitting). She loves the DMV culture, hates slow walkers, and refuses to acknowledge Northern Virginia as a part of the South. She lives and breathes all things theatre, being theatre technician herself, and is stoked to be writing for the theater beat.