SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Opening minds and hearts through song is the overarching goal of the show as the South Orange Performing Arts Center hosts American Theater Group’s latest world premiere musical, “Small Town Story,” running through Sunday, June 10.
The musical’s storyline, inspired by real events, tells the story of a small southern town trying to navigate a plethora of opinions and emotions when the local high school’s drama department decides to stage the controversial Broadway show “Rent.”
The play features a book and lyrics from Sammy Buck and music and lyrics from Brandon James Gwinn, who both drew from their personal stories growing up in the South to ensure a sincere portrayal of life in a place far different than South Orange.
Buck and Gwinn acknowledge that “Small Town Story” reflects the country’s current political climate, with the debate on topics like sex, drugs and gender identity helping to inform the story’s themes. But the musical is far from a heavy melodrama. Instead, it features numerous upbeat, fun songs that fuse pop with country and are sure to lift hearts in the audience.
“Sammy and I were put together by New York Theater, the original theater that developed this piece, but we had never worked together before and are of two generations. We both knew that this was something that we wanted to write about,” Gwinn said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “A lot of shows in high schools across the country get canceled because of the subject matter, and this play was inspired by a town in Texas that wasn’t allowed to stage a production of ‘Rent’ because of community uproar. We are both from southern towns — Sammy in Texas and myself in Tennessee — so we wanted to explore how a modern suburban southern community would deal with this matter. There are great arguments on both sides about whether or not the material is appropriate for high school students, but we were also interested in looking at how a parent would handle it. I think everyone has at some point in their life disagreed with their parent, so anyone can relate.
“The show looks at characters from different generations and from different sides of the political aisles. What I really enjoyed is that I don’t think this show takes sides — it just showed a lot of different perspectives,” Gwinn continued. “We never went into this trying to paint anyone with a broad brush; we wanted to show that the characters are real humans with real emotions and opinions. I wrote the score, and it was so fun to go back to my roots for more of a Nashville sound. The music is a lot of fun and the cast is unbelievable.”
Show leads Joanna Young and Stacey Todd Holt are residents of Maplewood and South Orange, respectively, and both are enthusiastic about the idea of bringing this thoughtful piece to the local community.
“I’ve been a Maplewood resident for 10 years and I heard about this show because I’m friends with the writer Sammy Buck, but I never did a reading of it. When I heard they were doing it at SOPAC and I reached out for more information, and next thing I knew I got an email about auditions,” Young said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “The idea that certainly speaks to me is that where we are in our country, everything is black and white and there is no gray. You either like the president or you don’t, you are on this side of a controversial issue or the other side. However, this show is very much about finding that gray area, and then you realize that art really does imitate life. It’s interesting that the themes in this show are so relevant eight years later after it was written. I portray a conservative, uptight character and it’s interesting and fun because it’s so different from me. It forces you to think and find empathy for the character when you have to figure out their motivation or their fear. I think the play is going to hit people hard and also give them some funny moments — it truly runs the gamut.”
Like the show’s writers, Holt was also able to draw from his own southern upbringing to connect with the characters in “Small Town Story.”
“I can remember watching the news in Georgia in the ’90s, and there was so much happening regarding political, religious and moral issues in film and theater. The LGBTQ community had really started coming to the forefront and really making people deal with issues that had been swept under the rug,” Holt said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “When ‘Rent’ came out it was kind of groundbreaking, and for adults and parents in smaller communities it made them uneasy. Even though today we’ve come so far in equality, we still have so far to go so these themes still resonate. With controversial subject matter, the easy way to deal with it is to just not acknowledge it or discuss it.
“I think ‘Small Town Story’ shows how explosive it can be and that it’s actually worse when issues aren’t addressed or ignored,” he continued. “I think what our show teaches everyone is that there has to be open communication, and give and take, and working it out together as opposed to ignoring. The show tackles quite a bit of issues, and setting it in the South is a boiling point with people’s political, religious and moral views.”
James Vagias, who heads the American Theater Group, is thrilled to be bringing “Small Town Story” to SOPAC after being impressed by a reading of it several years ago.
“It forces us to question some of our assumptions, it opens up conversations for all of us who are set in our ways, and it allows us to see people who disagree with us and arrive at some kind of positive dialogue,” Vagias said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I’m delighted by the fact that we have been able to cast so many local actors in this show. We have been able to engage the extraordinary talent pool in the area and we’re honored to have two such talented members of the SOMA acting community on our stage. It’s a wonderful show for the family, and it’s something that can help parents and kids understand each other, have a dialogue, and be entertained at the same time.”
To learn more about “Small Town Story,” visit https://www.sopacnow.org/small-town-story/ or call the box office at 973-313-2787.
Photos Courtesy of SOPAC and Spotlight Photography