The internet might not need more of me reflecting on returning to my former college campus as an adult, but for the niche experience that is Overture, it’s worth it. I haven’t reviewed an American University show since graduating, and someone next to me asked, “Are you writing for The Eagle?” and I, a former managing editor, laughed. Because I know very few people involved in this year’s production, I feel I have license to reflect on this experience of Overture, six years after my own in 2017 when I first became the token musical theater and journalism double major. Anyone who may have experienced Overture before can learn how this was different; anyone who doesn’t know will get a taste of the AU theater experience.
Overture is so fleeting, and yet so important to preserve. The annual freshman/new-student showcase at American University’s theater/musical theater program within the Department of Performing Arts is an experience that introduces new students (all majors welcomed) to the program. They craft original work in collaboration with their director and guest artists. This year’s Overture 2023, directed by new faculty member Nancy Bannon and music-directed by Sammy Grob, features the class of 2027. And it’s not your average Overture.
In this version, we don’t get the awkward but well-loved “Hi, I’m [insert name here], I’m from [insert state]!” introductions, we don’t have the structure of being in PERF-101 class, and we don’t have the original Overture songs. Instead, we get pictures of college students going through struggles through nine duos’ different takes on three open scenes; group scenes with each performer getting one-liners in quick succession; rhythmic Stomp-inspired dance pieces; reflective and stripped-down songs, both pre-existing like Linda Perry’s “What’s Up” and Jeff Bowen’s “Now. Here. This.” and a beautiful new one called “Here to Stay” written by Grob and the company; accented scene-change music; and a moment of spoken word poetry. One might miss the phenomenon of coming to Overture, learning specific elements of the new class’ lives, and being able to go up to them after and be like, “Yes, that’s that freshman from Overture.”
Yet take that context away, and you have a performance all about capturing potential and letting every performer have the chance to show their own take on the work they’re given. It’s a thrilling new way of “wanting to see more of them.” The scenes, songs, dances, and original pieces seem to happen in the order of three major sections: anxiety and fear in a new place; being misunderstood, angry and sad; and a moment of collective breath, reconciliation, hope, and connection. It is successful as an ensemble-driven showcase, as the emphasis on connection and making strong, brave, and intentional choices is clear. As a collective, they are captivating. And it’s still all about angsty college kids’ experiences at the end of the day.
Bannon does incredible work of being able to give a 26-person class enough room in a studio space to create interesting stage pictures. Students are climbing metal ladders, sitting across the whole stage and moving chairs around to create new settings throughout. The moments of the group doing small, intentional movements — discordantly and in unison — were the most intriguing. There’s the classic Overture sheepishness, at times, especially in the slam poetry moment, affectionately titled “Don’t,” where everyone sways and points while saying lines like “Don’t tell me not to groove to the beat” so seriously. But they work with it, and that’s Overture.
So many students stood out due to their commitment to the bit. If this is the direction Overtures are going, where you may not know everyone’s names during the show, I would give constructive criticism that perhaps there should be a headshot board in the lobby or the program. But shoutout to Megan Shorb, a clear leader with marching orders for a group of featured dancers; Meg Scott, one of those dancers clearly less sure about dancing than the others to comic effect, then to a more serious end; to the nine students in the final set of open scenes for the strongest and clearest intentions; to the boys — Luke Pinsky, Nate Rimalovski, Christopher Roche and Dylan Toll — who held down the low notes in ensemble numbers; and the sopranos on the upper harmony in Dave Malloy’s “The Forest” from Octet. (These vocals were tight; some of the strongest vocal work on an Overture I’ve ever heard, due to the precise conducting and guidance by Grob.)
Reviewing Overture is also, in a way, reviewing who this class is, and where the AU theater program is heading. This is a class of skilled vocalists able to work with precision, of actors who already have a good understanding of intention because they are forced to come up with exact circumstances to communicate very nonspecific lines with specificity for themselves. If this is how the freshmen are welcomed now, I’m glad they’re continuing to head in a direction that is professional, shows them experimental theater right from the get-go, and values their growth.
Running Time: 60 minutes.
Overture 2023 played October 6, 2023, at 8 p.m. and October 7, 2023, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Studio Theatre in American University’s Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. The run was sold out.
Director: Nancy Bannon
Music Director/Piano: Sammy Grob
Assistant Directors: Anna Shafer and Makayla Zoe Fetterman
Lighting Design: Yannick Godts and Jason Arnold
Stage Management Team: Megan Kempton, Ava Wlson, Anna Steinmeyer and Simon Huynh
Costume Design: Jillian Skara
Props: Karis Yan Mei Snead
CAST — THE CLASS OF 2027
Sophie Indiana Fischer
Madison (Madi) Grace Troost