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Cantata 2000 is an exciting theatrical event. Visiting director and composer Elizabeth Swados has put together an overwhelmingly uplifting production that affirms the wide creative possibilities of musical theater. Drawing upon the works of young writers facing a dizzying array of both comical and serious issues, Swados and her team of student actors, musicians, producers and designers have converted these pieces poetry and prose into a highly effective cabaret format.
Cantata 2000 is a musical anthology that celebrates our existence at the turn of the millennium--even the angrier, sadder bits are imbued with the hope and energy of the cast. By the time the show's 35 songs and many monologues are over, the audience has seen how many disparate sources of inspiration can fit together in a remarkable and entertaining way.
Swados and research director Christopher Terrio '97 have chosen some unconventional texts to adapt for the stage. The pieces range from casual stories of personal experience and issue-driven rants to humorous dialogues and touching poems. One story is about a little girl who says she's going to Christ; another involves a man trying to start a conversation with a woman sitting next to him on a bus. Others focus on more particular aspects of society, including race, sexuality and technology. Yet the large majority of the writing chosen illuminates the motivating forces that hold people together in confusing times and keep them moving forward.
The musical numbers maintain the style and feel of the writing, so that the show itself is as varied as its sources. Nearly all of the works are sung, but the aim of the music is to help communicate the author's messages rather than send the audience home humming. The fusion of words and music works well, emphasizing the spectrum of emotions exposed by the writing.
The adaptation of the texts to theater format is so effective that it is hard imagine these works in their original forms. Much of the credit for this success belongs to the group of talented actors--five men and five women--ho are utterly believable while slipping in and out of different characters. They adjust their voices, change their clothes and put on masks to convey the wide variety of personalities and places featured in the musical. All of this frantic shifting of attitude and environment makes the show's final number, in which the cast members face the audience as themselves and sing about finding a new song, all the more powerful. Its sweet, hopeful simplicity is an eloquent conclusion that suggest the humanity lying beneath all of the show's hectic modern concerns.
Also impressive are the "millennium monologues" in the show. Each cast member wrote an original monologue about the year 2000, and these pieces easily match the energy and passion of the rest of the show. Some take a humorous approach, discussing alien encounters or the possible effects of cloning Calvin Klein models. Others talk about starting anew when the millennium comes--and doing it right this time. Most of the monologues exhibit the good humor and underlying dignity that characterizes the entire production.
The actors are also responsible for most of the show's choreography, which usually involves high-energy, free-spirited dance. But for many of the numbers, the movement on stage plays an integral part in communicating the writer's ideas to the audience. For example, the song "Information O.D." has the cast typing furiously away at computers as they try to remember important or trivial pieces of information that get lost in their hectic lives.
The show's scenic design is intentionally sparse, fitting its cabaret-style presentation, but what does exist is used to great effect. The main props are ten chairs, varying wildly in artistic design, that are "introduced" by the cast members in the show's humorous opening segment. The chairs are moved around the stage constantly and are integrated into almost every number, functioning as a stable counterpart to the show's quickly changing tone. The costumes also mimic the progress of the show, as each actor occasionally puts on additional layers and styles of clothing to fit the mood of the particular piece.
Cantata 2000's experimental treatment of works by young writers is an important success, demonstrating how different forms of expression can be combined in a vibrant theatrical creation. The production is also valuable as sheer entertainment. The musical numbers are funny and moving, and the ten talented actors are engaging and play all of the roles with a seemingly unending reserve of energy. The show's approach to storytelling is original and holds together a unique panorama of current emotions and ideas, lending hope not only to the turn of millennium but to the ability of theater to entertain in fresh, new formats.
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