Ed Decker, Dennis Lickteig & Joe Wicht, Curators
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Much like Jack Benny did for much of his life, New Conservatory Theatre Center has been holding its age at thirty-nine for the past year, just waiting for COVID to ease long enough in order to celebrate in NCTC-Fabulous-Style its fortieth. During this forced pause, Founder and Artistic Director Ed Decker; director of many NCTC shows, Dennis Lickteig; and music director of twenty NCTC musicals, Joe Wicht, culled through scores of songs from the many musicals NCTC has produced since its inception – many of them Bay Area premieres straight from the Great White Way – to pick just the right combination to ring out in song and dance a birthday party like no other.
Well, I am here to announce the wait was worth it. The result is toe-tapping, heart-warming, and eye-popping as a musically stellar cast of five entertain in cabaret style presenting over thirty numbers from twenty-five-plus past musicals. Congratulations, NCTC. Encore is an evening to be relished as we all honor this ground-breaking treasure of the Bay Area where innovation in education and performance have combined for over four decades to promote community, activism, empathy, and joy.
While the chosen numbers do not follow a timeline or storyline, there is much about NCTC’s rich history and that of the communities it serves that echo throughout the evening. What better lyrics to open the evening than those from “Doors” from the 2003 production of Closer than Ever. One can imagine Ed Decker thinking exactly these words when he was audacious enough to found New Conservatory Theatre Center in 1981 as an institution where all youth – straight and queer – could feel safe and supported to be themselves.
“In front of me now is an open door.
I’m moving ahead.
Not sure of the way.
And yet there’s a light that I’m heading for.
It’s closer than ever.”
It was in fact as a progressive arts education program for young people that NCTC had as its start. After their rousing, well-blended opening number, the cast of five remembers those initial years of 1981-86 with an upbeat, fast-paced medley of six songs from those early, youth-performed shows. We soon see that since its inception, NCTC has combined musical excellence and fun-filled presentations with messages important to be heard. This is clear as the group sings of “a land I see where the children are free, and I say this land ain’t too far from where we are” (“Free to Be You and Me”). This initial song journey comes to a hilarious end as each member takes on the daunting task of singing the rapid-speed, tongue-tying lyrics of “Don’t Be Anything Else than You Can Be” from Snoopy, deservedly earning the first of many loud cheers from the audience.
The evening is a wonderful mixture of every possible combination of the five-member cast, with each having opportunities to sing solo as well as with each and all of the other members. Director Dennis Lickteig finds many imaginative and impressive ways to highlight and individualize each of the numbers on the purple-draped, sparkling night-club stage designed by Kuo-Hao Lo – one lit with style, grace, and of course humor by Weili Shi. Jorge R. Hernández’ costumes are stunning and a class act. Joe Wicht has arranged the performed numbers for an amazing array of musical nostalgia while also playing the piano and leading a first-class band of Any Meyers, guitar, and Tim Vaughan, drum.
The first number after the kids medley is pure NCTC frivolity performed in a classy style. Four queens – playing cards from a deck, but maybe the other kind, too – line up to sing and dance “You’ve Got to Stay in the Game” (from 2003’s When Pigs Fly). While providing much fodder for our laughter, the key for NCTC’s longevity is certainly obvious: “If you want to win and love, you’ve got to stay in the game.” For an openly queer theatre that unabashedly has offered daring shows of same-sex love when other theatres would not touch such productions, NCTC is a proven success of sticking to it against all odds.
Each of these five performers brings the vocals, personality, and presence to make the evening a not-to-be-missed event; and while they time and again wow us when singing collectively, it is also a delight to have chances to enjoy each individually. Veteran of many NCTC shows, William Giammona returns with his rich and powerful baritone and his charming demeanor to shine in numbers like “The Butterfly” (from 2012’s The Story of My Life). He expressively intones in variously pitched voices the story of a butterfly’s dream to see the ocean as he receives advice from such sources as the river and the breeze. Later, he beautifully sings with convincing encouragement to all who are listening, “Love Who You Love” from one of my all-time favorites of NCTC, 2004’s A Man of No Importance.
Familiar to many NCTC and Bay Area musical-loving fans is Jacqueline De Muro whose deep, often smoky, and always impressive vocals often evoke deeply emotional reactions from her audience. That is especially true as she becomes the mother who fears losing her son to a sudden disease, singing, “Love is here and then it’s gone; the music still plays on.” She easily brings tears to an audience enraptured by her ability to be the defiant mother who does not want to let him go, only finally to sing softly of the grief welling within her (“Music Still Plays On” from 2000’s A New Brain). Again, thinking of the AIDS years that NCTC, its actors, and its audience endured, her number and her performance take on special and added meanings.
Among other equally powerful moments in the evening, Ms. De Muro reaches out and grabs her audience’s hearts, refusing to let go as she so affectingly sings the words, “Loving you is not a choice” (“Loving You” from 2002’s Passion), made all the more compelling when coupled in duet with William Giammona’s singing in parallel with evident fervor of a different love, “It had gone way too far” (“Way Too Far” from 2008’s Thrill Me).
Duets prove often to be powerful for these performers. The alto of Jacqueline De Muro and the soprano of Catalina Kumiski intertwine in emotional reflections as they sing “I Knew Him So Well” (from 2001’s Chess): and they join forces again in “But the World Goes ‘Round” (from 2002’s And the World Goes ‘Round) where their voices build to a commanding climax that fills the entire Decker Theatre with their sung brilliance. Alone, Catalina Kumiski entices us with her wonderfully and romantically rendered “Boy Meets Boy” (from 2000’s Boy Meets Boy). She is also hauntingly stunning as the lead solo in “Anthem” (from 1999’s The Harvey Milk Show) before being joined in a staged candlelight vigil by the entire cast as they sing in rolling harmonies a number that cannot help but bring each of us back to that awful night in November 1978.
With a resounding tenor voice that often sparkles with its inherent energy, McKay Elwood excites us in numbers like “Evil Woman” (sung with Ms. De Muro from 2011’s Xanadu). He sends us into roaring laughter as he duets scarfed and with appropriate swish with Anthony Rollins-Mullens in “Bossy Bottoms” (from 2010’s Dirty Little Showtunes), where the two prance with prank across the stage like an X-rated, Vaudeville act. When both are joined by Mr. Giammona for an equally funny and naughty “Where Has My Little Willie Gone,” (from 2007’s Wilde Boys), we understand as an audience why it was earlier announced, “Let’s just say that camp is not a place to pitch your tent” – that being especially true for NCTC.
Anthony Rollins-Mullens is close to a showstopper every time he steps into the spotlight; and in this cast of all-stars, that is a fairly audacious claim to make. The proud, near-angry intensity his bass vocals bring to “The World Outside These Walls” (from the tremendously impactful show of little-known, gay history, The View Upstairs, 2019) is visceral in its effect. When he prances daintily across the stage waving a wand in “It’s Tough to Be a Fairy,” (from 2005’s Whoop-Dee-Doo), we get to see a totally different but equally impressive side of him. But for me, the most memorable part of the evening is when he sings Pioneer from 1998’s Ballad of Little Mikey. From my perspective, he memorably and masterfully sings a series of reasons why it is so important NCTC has been here during all these years of wide-spread fears of coming out, the horror of AIDS, violence against transgenders, the recent Black Lives Matter, etc. The lyrics in part say, “Any time you get a couple of those angry people thinking, you are a pioneer.” Further, “We are just making sure our side can be heard.” To that we all have to say, “Amen” and “Thank you, NCTC.”
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
Encore continues through June 12, 2022, in production by New Conservatory Theatre Center in the Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness at Market, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos Credit: Lois Tema