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SPAMALU’s “Aslant” innovates traditional musical theatre

Student Produced Amateur Musical Productions at Lawrence University (SPAMALU) presented “Aslant,” their original, cabaret-style series of theatrical vignettes and songs from musicals. The byline of the program for “Aslant” (a title very cleverly italicized in order to emphasize the production’s derailment from the straight and narrow) was, “A night of musical theater scenes like you’ve never seen them before.”

These performances took place the weekend of May 2 in the Esch-Hurvis Studio. It is rare to see a musical and theatrical performance of this kind on this side of College Avenue and, not unlike the show’s unique venue, the show was, indeed, unlike anything I have ever seen before.

The director’s note in the program indicated that “Aslant” was “meant to present traditional musical theatre pieces in a new light” and to “stir the imagination and provoke new emotional responses to established songs.” These new emotional responses could, perhaps, be “catharsis or jubilation by being reminded of things that were or could be.”

It is this “could be” that, I believe, spurred the updates to songs like “Popular” from the show “Wicked,” “Welcome to the ’60s” from “Hairspray” and “On My Own” from “Les Misérables.”

We might know these songs within specific contexts, but a little ingenuity in staging and costuming turned “Popular” on its head. A song about a bubble-gum blonde urging a brunette to develop social graces turned into a song about a girl with pigtails, chunky glasses, and a large dose of clumsiness aggressively trying to teach a reluctant, put-together blonde how to be cool.

Wordplay turned “Welcome to the ’60s,” a song about the hipness and cultural freedoms that decade brought into “Welcome to your 60s,” an amusing exploration of the wonderful bodily quirks that aging may present. Similarly, “On My Own” became “On My Phone,” a love song about being trapped in technology: a pun full of pathos.

Senior Daniel Vinitsky stage-directed the production. I asked him about some of the challenges and rewards that a show like this presented and he responded, “The show was truly in our hands, which was a challenging change of pace from our involvement in most other shows at Lawrence,” and, because of the extra-curricular nature of SPAMALU, “it was challenging at times to motivate complete commitment to the  project, but once the show started taking shape, everyone was all in.

This intrinsic motivation contributed to the quality of the show and the joy we all felt upon making and performing it.”

Regarding the benefits of student-created theatre, Vinitsky said, “Because of the hard work we put in, we ended up with a product that we were incredibly proud to call our own—one that no one has ever or will ever perform again. It is immensely satisfying to take part in a work like that.”

There was no set script or music, so Vinitsky, 22 Lawrence students who performed the 22 musical numbers and the nine-piece pit orchestra, conducted by sophomore David Pecsi worked closely with senior Michael Uselmann, junior Stephanie Sundberg and freshman Nick Nootenboom who arranged all of the pieces specifically for “Aslant”.

“Aslant” exhibited both comedy and compassion. In the same show, “Ave Maria” was performed on nose-kazoo and “Santa Fe” from “Newsies” turned into a song shared by female lovers that championed change, celebrated commitment and promoted equal marriage rights.

Each piece’s witty modernization highlighted both the creative capacity of our students and the eternally reinterpretable messages that music and drama can communicate. “Aslant” was, in many ways, very touching.