Student-produced “35 MM” personifies photos with music

In capturing “35MM: A Musical Exhibition” with a phrase, “a labor of love” might be the best description. The production is unique in both its intimacy and ambition. The cast is comprised of five musical theater lovers and accompanied by an equally small band of musicians.

To explain the concept of the show is as daunting a task as actually putting it on. It has no narrative plot, and is comprised entirely of songs. The actors don’t play one specific character; they morph and change along with the music.

The inspiration for the show comes from pictures taken by New York City-based photographer Matthew Murphy. Composer Ryan Scott Oliver then created songs and lyrics based on Murphy’s photographs and the show is meant to personify the images through music.

“It’s a very meta show,” cast member junior Chris McLauchlin said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, we actually say what those words are and put them to rhythm.”

The elongated journey of bringing “35MM” to Geneseo began back in 2011 when Musical Theatre Club performed “The Ballad of Sara Berry” - which is from “35MM” - in its spring show. Junior Philip Romano, who is directing “35MM,” remembers the number fondly, calling it one of his “favorite MTC songs.”

“[It] stuck out to me,” he said. “I liked that it was a story within itself, and a very strange story.”

Nearly a year later, Romano said he saw an advertisement for the world premiere production of “35MM” and recalled “Sara Berry.” So, during spring break his sophomore year, Romano travelled down to New York City to see the premiere.

“I loved the entire show,” he said. “I think the main draw [for me] was the music.”

According to Romano, in the back of the show’s program, there was a note about the show being available for licensing.

This led to Romano to eventually contacting Oliver and inquiring about the show.

According to Romano, he exchanged emails with Oliver until they ultimately met face-to-face in New York City, where he was able to discuss his artistic vision of the show with him.

“That was a really cool, unique experience,” he said. “You don’t usually get to interact with the composer.”

Going into the fall 2012 semester, Romano said he began planning the event right away. He had to secure a location, cast the show and ultimately purchase the rights to “35MM.”

Romano said he used an undergraduate research grant and travel grant through the Geneseo Foundation and Student Association to help obtain the rights to the show, which he officially acquired this January. Because Romano was able to get licensing for the show himself, it is entirely student produced and financed independently from the theater department.

Another challenge Romano said he faced was not only getting the entire cast together for rehearsal, but also finding a space to rehearse.

“In a cast of five people, you would think it’s not that difficult to get everybody together for a rehearsal process,” junior Elyssa Ramirez said. “But because it’s a student-run thing and we’re also doing a trillion other things throughout this semester, it’s been rough.”

“We had to find random spots throughout campus,” McLauchlin said. “We rehearsed in classrooms in Sturges [Hall] fairly consistently.”

The cast also agreed that the complexity and difficulty of the show’s music has been another trial.

“It’s nice to have that challenge, because it lets me grow as a singer,” McLauchlin said.

The small scale of the show enables each song to feel more intimate, personal and intense. A standout is “The Ballad of Sara Berry” - the song that initially inspired Romano. The lyrics detail the tumultuous path of a boisterous high school girl seeking votes to be prom queen. The storytelling structure of the song enables Ramirez, who provides the lead vocals, to be sassy, alluring and magnetic all in the span of a few minutes.

Despite all the obstacles and the conflicts, Romano and the cast members agree that show has been worth it.

“It’s been absolutely great because we get to experiment [and] we get to play around with blocking,” cast member junior Erin Donovan said. “We all really like this music, we all took the initiative to be in this show. Doing it on our own is a lot more difficult in a lot of respects but it’s definitely more fun because you don’t have anyone telling you what you can and can’t do.”

“35MM” will run in the KnightSpot from Thursday April 25 to Saturday April 27 at 8 p.m. with an additional 2 p.m. show on Saturday.