“A SYMPHONY FOR PORTLAND” in NYC: A Review

Written by Christina Hemphill, the smart and provocative modern-day urban saga A Symphony For Portland kicks off with Here In This City, a musical advertisement for the virtues of the so-called “The City of Roses”. As assorted citizens (a businessman in a suit, a nun with the unblemished face of a child, a worried father looking for his missing son…) carry on their daily business in Portland’s Waterfront Park, the cast sings lyrics like, “There is a city that we choose to live in; It’s the best city that we’ve ever known!”.  The hilariously saccharine opener praises Portland’s progressive politics (“No city is righter… no, LEFTER than we!”) and its aesthetic appeal.  The harmony of the cast– both musically and choreographically as they move around on stage– is no less than astonishing.  And, again, this is only the opening number!  But seeing through the patently skin-deep lyrics, the audience gets the impression that there’s more than meets the eye beyond the Chamber of Commerce-style tableau of Portland’s eco-friendliness and coffee houses. Not long after the sugary intro, we get some insight meet the OTHER side of Oregon’s biggest city: a makeshift family of young sex workers and other hand-to-mouthers living in an abandoned warehouse. Dressed in variations of “Goth lite” and transgenerational anti-fashion, these characters include Sarah (Caitlyn Somerville) and Breonna (Lauren Rathbun), who at times serve as something of a 2022 equivalent of a Greek chorus. But like the main characters in A Symphony for Portland, each also has their own story to tell later on.  The members of this diverse tribe also include boyfriends Aaron (Jamiel Burkhart) and Jordan (Matthew Cohen), a couple who are unyieldingly dedicated to each other despite their vastly different personalities.  We learn that the charismatic Aaron is accepted to a university in Indiana, but worries about having the resources, financial or otherwise, to attend.  We learn that the socially conscious, intensely spiritual Jordan has run away from home. The pair’s current living arrangements– without plumbing or electricity– may be far from ideal, but it’s clear that the light of their youthful optimism isn’t ready to prematurely dim. Sure enough, there is a musical comeback to the saccharine sweetness of the opening number, named Here in the City, II.  With a vastly different tone (“Here in the city THEY love…!”), it’s a far more cynical “tribute” of sorts to Portland’s hidden subculture.  In the words of one character later on, “Beyond the sugar and spice, things are more naughty than nice!”

In a parallel plot taking place in yet another corner of Portland, we meet Starr (Kristen Smith), a restless teenaged girl. Living with her no-nonsense, controlling single father (Demetrius Kee), Starr is full of adolescent longing alongside very mature feelings of desire… but is not allowed to date.   The teen gets even more restless when she is wooed by Jesse (Isaac Williams), a smooth-talking low level drug dealer and “Romeo” (a code word for “pimp”), who offers to take Starr to her prom.  The teen runs away from home, lured by the promise of Jesse’s forbidden love.  Starr learns the hard way, however, that Jesse is not exactly a “free agent”.  He’s under the thumb of crime czar Nick (Robert Pivac).  Sadly, the naive girl gets caught in the crossfires of power.  Starr’s distraught father spends the rest of the play looking for her, crossing paths with Jordan’s dad Isaiah (John Stillwaggon), who is looking for his runaway son.  Will Starr and Jordan reunite with their parents? Can Aaron and Jordan carve out a life together? Without giving too much away, the climax of A Symphony For Portland is a real scorcher.

Jay Michaels’ direction of A Symphony For Portland is brisk and fluid.  Each of the main characters has several serious issues to deal with, yet all are given their chance to have their say.  The cast is diverse, but they all have one thing in common: All are excellent singers, whether solo or together (Swan Song, in Act 2, is perhaps the finest example of the cast’s collective musical harmony.).  No one stumbles on even the most challenging of notes. The songs feature many hard-hitting ballads an such heart-tuggers as I Want to Go Home, and most of the soundtrack boasts a very spiritual tone.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the music really touches the soul. A particular standout in the cast is Kristen Smith as Starr, who exudes vulnerability alongside street-smart sass in both her acting and singing.  She hits some impressive heights many times throughout the show.  It is absolutely impossible not to be moved by Smith’s yearning I Want to Have a Normal Family in Act 1, or the Act 2 number The Holidays, where a now pregnant and homeless Starr has been taken in by her new surrogate family.  Similarly, it’s also impossible not to be moved by the characters of Dad and Isiah as they search for their missing children.  Their Dear God is essentially a prayer set to music.  In the pivotal role of Sister Kathleen, Ashlyn Prieto has many of the play’s funniest moments and also gets to hit some astonishingly impressive high notes when she sings. As Aaron and Jordan, Jamiel Burkhart and Matthew Cohen are also standouts.  Their pairing may make for one of the most idiosyncratic same-sex couples in musical theater, but their wide-eyed, youthful chemistry is very palpable, thanks to the skills of the actors.  

A Symphony For Portland is a breakthrough musical in several ways.  It’s certainly not the first musical to explore the uncensored side of urban life. The young characters’ struggles– especially the explorations of the day-to-day dehumanization of the sex workers– is not toned down by any means.  That said, A Symphony For Portland is bolstered by its moments of humor and sense of optimism. Also, whether it is the intentions of the playwright or not, the homeless characters are decidedly NOT in a constant state of lament about their situation.  As mentioned before, these “children of the night” are no less than a devoted family who deal with their circumstances rather than constantly trying to escape them. While the play is grounded in realism, the play emphasizes that extraordinary things can indeed happen in a city of 652,503 people. As anyone who has been following the backstory of the long journey of A Symphony For Portland to the stage of The Players Theater in New York City, it was indeed a minor miracle that this enlightening show got to be seen by audiences… and triumphed in the process. A Symphony For Portland is proof positive that miracles still happen, both in the worlds created by theater and in real life.  And, sometimes, BOTH at the same time…

The full cast of A Symphony For Portland includes Kristen Smith, Isaac Williams, Matthew Joshua Cohen, Jamiel Burkhart, Caitlyn Somerville, John Stillwaggon, Lauren Rathburn, Robert Pivec, Ashlyn Prieto, Demetrius Kee, Hannah Bonnett, Sarah Rose, Ava Diane Tyson, and Andrew J Koehler.  Book, music, and lyrics are by Christina Hemphill.  Angela Theresa Egic, serves as stage manager with lighting design by Zach Dulny. The production features musical direction by Larry Daggett and is directed by Jay Michaels.

A Symphony For Portland gave its final performance for this run on Sunday, August 28th. Follow A Symphony for Portland for updates on future performances.

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