DRIFT impresses gala crowd at grand opening of Barton College’s new jewel of a theatre

Melvin Tunstall III, Christian Campbell
Melvin Tunstall III, Christian Campbell

DRIFT Music and Lyrics by Jeremy Schonfeld

Additional Material by Craig Popisil

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy

Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre
at Barton College in Wilson September 12-13, 16-20

The Kennedy Theatre at the Progress Energy Center
in Raleigh September 23-27

The serene balmy evening, Saturday, September 12, began outside in an open tent on the grounds of the new Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. A handsome gala crowd in black tie, tuxedos and evening gowns, contributors to this long-awaited project, sat down to a formal banquet of salad with crab cake, croissants, horseradish encrusted beef filet, glasses of wine, chocolate truffles and chocolate mousse with raspberries. The guests exchanged congenial conversation beneath the large floral arrangements in the center of each table as they enjoyed a clear view of the darkened focal point of the evening: the sleek modern structure of the new theatre a dozen or so yards across the manicured lawn. On hand were the fundraising committee members, including Mr. Eric Sellers, Chair, Dr. Noval C. Kneten, Barton College President, and Dr. K.D. Kennedy, Jr., a major contributor and a key mover and shaker for this new facility that bears his daughter’s and son-in-law’s names.

Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre
Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre

Speeches were given, congratulations were exchanged, and the supporters of this long-awaited night delightedly applauded the dramatic flourish of the “lighting of the theatre” complete with a trio of searchlights illuminating the night sky. The light-hearted assembly then strolled the short distance to reconvene in the theatre lobby for a champagne toast to the new $3.1 million facility.

After more champagne, coffee, and convivial chatter, the gathering was ushered into the performance space to view the premiere performance of a newly expanded theatrical version of Jeremy Schonfeld’s “Drift,” the inaugural event of Barton’s new theatre.

“Drift,” “a semi-autobiographical, contemporary concert-musical,” provided a heavy hitting denouement to the evening’s festivities. Jeremy Schonfeld, the Brooklyn-based composer-lyricist, describes “Drift” as “a deeply personal work, written before, during, and after my marriage ended, chronicling my own turbulent journey through divorce and child custody.” Not, as one may imagine, an upbeat piece.

This uninterrupted 90 minutes is an examination of a man’s feelings at the loss of his marriage, his wife, his home, and charged emotions over its impact on his young daughter. It is a musical road map through the classic stages of grief: from denial (this is not happening to me), the anger (why is this happening to me?), to bargaining (we can fix this), depression (there is nothing I can do to change this), and grudging acceptance (I can learn from this and move on). For “Drift,” there are some bright spots along the way, dark though this journey so often seems.

The shock and anger of songs such as “Gone” and “Spite,” the bitterness of “Tuesday & Thursday” concerning the child visitation schedule, and the bewilderment of “The Good Wife,” are leavened by the wry look at men’s group therapy in “Dr. Schneider,” the tentatively optimistic “Helluva Guy/Same Boy Now” and the tenderness of the estranged couple’s duet “State of the Heart.”  By the journey’s end the faint light resolves into a sign of hope with “Wide Open World” and the affirmation of “Freedom.”

The more one learns about the prolific Mr. Schonfeld the more apt it appears that he would turn hard-earned experience into soul-searching music. The man has a long list of musical accomplishments, as well as numerous recent projects in the wind. These include, according to his website (www.jeremyschonfeld.com): “the development of a new musical with director and producer Daisy Prince … the album ‘37 Notebooks,’ the feature film, Clear Blue Tuesday as well as the musical, Home and innumerable atrainplays.” (By the way, if you do not know what atrainplays are, you must check out www.theatrainplays.com. Wildly imaginative street theatre is by no means dead!)

Jeremy Schonfeld’s music capped the evening, but if the star Saturday night was the newly minted Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre, the underpinnings were the first-rate professionals Hot Summer Nights assembled to support Schonfeld’s work.

At the head of the list is the team of Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell. (Stop me if you have heard these names before.) Lauren directs this production of “Drift,” and is the Producing Artistic Director of Hot Summer Nights (HSN) in Raleigh. Alan is Managing Director for this production and is also Managing Director of HSN. Their professional theatre credits, believe me, are extensive. The staging of this show under their expert guidance had a Broadway snap, poise and level of nuance that raised the bar for regional productions. This team knows what they are doing.

The choreography by Matthew-Jason Willis, was crisp, and just enough to add embellishment to the evening. Technical Director, Scenic and Lighting Designer Chris Bernier, Costume Designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, and the excellent Projection Designs by Vincent Marini combined to create a seamless, professional and effective whole. The projection of static and moving images on stark white set pieces coordinated with great lighting worked especially well to underscore the show’s emotional content, enhance the concept of fleeting recollections lost, and to establish instantly a sense of place.

But the joy of the evening was the opportunity to watch a group of young professionals ‘do that voodoo that they do so well’ – to paraphrase, and with apologies to, Cole Porter. Christian Campbell is close to perfect in the lead role of the deeply injured David: surly, handsome, and with a powerful voice. Andrea Schulz Twiss as his ex-wife Laura does an excellent job conveying her anger and confusion. The supporting characters throughout are touched by or working through divorce, and the actors playing them succeed admirably. These people are pros. Most have a long list of professional credits, and well-trained voices. David’s male group therapy pals, played by Melvin Tunstall III, Gregory Dale Sanders, Dave Burrus, and Sean Jenness, demonstrate an effortless ensemble, great vocal skill, and a sense of fun. But the ladies also are a pleasure to watch and to hear: Michelle Kinney and Yolanda Rabun do great work.

Musicians Julie Bradley, Drew Lyle, John Simonet, and Todd Proctor work smoothly together and are led at the piano by Composer/Music Director Jeremy Schonfeld.

If you are quite sure your spousal relationship is on solid ground, or even if it isn’t, take this opportunity to catch this production, not only for the impressive production values and top-notch performances, but also for the possibilities this evolving musical work suggests for future development and growth.

As for “future development and growth,” keep your eye on Hot Summer Nights and Barton College’s exciting new Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre.

Audiences please note: This production contains mature themes and strong language.

– Stephen Cordell