The Jeanine Larson Dobbins Conservatory of Theatre and Dance will soon be home to the world premiere of “Unlimited: The Music and Lyrics of Stephen Schwartz” when it takes the stage at Southeast Missouri State University’s River Campus on Feb. 17-21.
From the creator of such musicals as “Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Children of Eden,” “The Prince of Egypt,” Disney’s “Pocahontas,” Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and many more, “Unlimited” is Schwartz’ first and only cabaret of his extensive canon of extraordinary work.
While “Unlimited” has been workshopped a few times on other stages, it will be performed for the first time as a full production with a full design at the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 18, 19 and 20, and at 2 p.m. Feb. 20 and 21.
“This is really part of our effort to bring a lot of new work to campus,” said Kitt Lavoie, assistant professor of theatre and director of Southeast’s production of “Unlimited.” “That’s a huge part of the business that really almost no one teaches, and so we want to really be able to teach our students how to work on new work.”
Lavoie described “Unlimited” as a revue that intertwines songs “that a lot of people already know and love” from Schwartz’ musicals into a story featuring six main characters, each with their own story and relationships, plus an ensemble.
“Many of even the most familiar songs in the show are treated in ways that are an exciting evolution of the way they worked in the original shows in which they appeared,” Lavoie said, crediting the show’s arrangements to Broadway pianist, Zak Sandler. “Some songs that were solos in the original show are now duets or full group numbers; some songs that were sung by a man in the original production are now sung by a woman, and vice-versa.”
Senior musical theatre major Josslyn Shaw of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, who portrays one of the six lead roles in “Unlimited,” said the musical has given the cast a taste of the process of building a brand new show.
“It shocks me that most people don’t know it takes years for Broadway shows to be brought to life, and each one definitely goes through a long list of changes,” Shaw said. “After the first week of rehearsals, the cast came back the next Monday to a brand new song, a new show order and different arrangements. It definitely keeps everyone on our toes!”
As they continue rehearsals, Conservatory students are working directly with Schwartz and his Broadway colleagues — Matt Cowart, Joshua Morgan and Zak Sandler — over Zoom sessions to implement feedback or adjustments.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to work with Stephen Schwartz as well as Matt Cowart, Zak Sandler, and Joshua Morgan — better known as ‘The Gang’ to us,” Shaw said. “To be doing this show, singing songs from ‘Wicked’ and knowing Stephen Schwartz is supporting me and the entire cast is mind-boggling to say the least.”
Freshman musical theatre major Payton Johnson of Bellevue, Nebraska, who also plays a lead role in “Unlimited,” said working with the creators of the show has been “an amazing experience.”
“It’s really great to get notes from people who are in the industry, especially people involved with one of Broadway’s biggest writers,” Johnson said.
Schwartz has won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics, four Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and has been nominated for six Tony Awards. He received the 2015 Isabelle Stevenson Award, a special Tony Award for his commitment to serving artists and fostering new talent.
Thanks to the opportunity to work with the professionals behind “Unlimited” in creating the first full production of the show, Lavoie said Southeast students will also leave a lasting mark on the libretto of the script.
“There are a lot of design choices and staging choices that we’re making in this that I think are going to become the way that this show is done to a degree,” Lavoie said. “Because our students are being thoughtful actors and asking thoughtful questions, there are real changes being made to the script that are things that every production from now on is going to be done that way.”
Lavoie said The Conservatory has been developing a national reputation in a significant way.
“I think part of what we’re doing is just really trying to continue to build that reputation,” Lavoie said. “Frankly, I would love it if this University became a way station for people who have new shows that want to try them out.”
Face coverings will be required, and social distancing guidelines will be in place.
Tickets may be purchased by contacting the River Campus Box Office, located in the Cultural Arts Center, 518 S. Fountain St., weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., by calling (573) 651-2265, or online at RiverCampus.org.