What do you do when you’ve won your second Ovation Award (for music directing The Color Purple) a mere twelve months after winning Ovation Number One for the music and lyrics of your original song cycle The Trouble With Words … and you’ve only just turned thirty?

The answer, if you’re Gregory Nabours, is to revisit The Trouble With Words in a smartly tweaked 2013 production for Coeurage Theatre Company, one which features the talents of its original director and band and most of its original cast, along with four new songs and a brand new choreographer and design team, all of this adding up to a TTWW 2.0 even more splendiferous than it was the first time round.

AllThatsInBetween The Trouble With Words is, for students of Musical Theater 101, neither a traditional musical nor a musical revue, but rather a “song cycle,” i.e. a collection of solos, duets, and ensemble pieces with relatively little book but a through-theme, in this case the trouble we humans have with those pesky little things called WORDS, a theme made even sharper the second time around.

Among the returning songs, “The Kid With A Heart On” explores the world of double entendres (“I see you standing over there, all wet… with tears. I wanna be there every time that you come… and every time that you leave”). “Listen” asks the age-old question: Why are people so reluctant to hear what others are saying? (“If I could just learn to hear all the things that you are, play you on my guitar, we’d be better.”) “The Haircut” has its hapless hero attempting to avoid putting his foot in his mouth when his newly-bobbed girlfriend asks “So … what do you think?” and all he can come up with is “Wow … it’s different.”

If “Haircut” and several other Nabours ditties added a needed dollop of comedy to The Trouble With Words the first time round, TTWW 2013 features two hilarious new up-tempo numbers, making Version 2.0 a better balanced—and even more entertaining—mix of the serious and the light-hearted.

PickupLines “Pick-Up Lines” provides a side-splitting look at some of the worst “lines” on record. Take, “They call me ‘Thanksgiving,’ and that ain’t for nuffin’. You can always come to me when you need a good stuffin’.” “Complimentary Brunch” has the wives of two best buds exchanging zingers that would do Mame Dennis and Vera Charles proud, such as “Who needs to eat or think when they’ve got pills and a drink?” and “Look at all the specials today! Order any one, you know my husband and I will pay, as always…”

What remains the same in 2013 as in 2011 are Nabours’ gifts at writing exquisitely varied songs which combine the complexity of Adam Guettel, the hummability of Jason Robert Brown, and the humor and sheer gorgeousness of William Finn.

Returning from Version 1.0 are the stellar quartet made up of Ryan Wagner, Christopher Roque, Julianne Donelle, and Aimee Karlin, all of them (as is Nabours) graduates of Cal State Fullerton’s prestigious Department Of Theatre And Dance.

Wagner once again brings his leading man looks and smooth vocals to the amusingly seductive “Tongue Tied” (“You haunt my daydreams in the light, then grace my nightmares come the night”) and now opens Act Two with the powerful newcomer “All That’s In Between” and its unanswerable questions: “Are we demons? Are we death? Are we all the sin I see out in the world?”

GottaGetLaidMen The uniquely gifted Roque returns to lend his velvety tenor to the jazzy pop “Listen,” to which he accompanies himself on guitar, and the transcendently beautiful “Raincloud.” (“If I’m not afraid of bleeding, then I won’t be afraid of blood… And maybe there’s a way to find the man that I once was, before I learned to lie… and let life pass me by.”)

Donelle is again a stunner with the deeply moving “Johnny,” which takes the melody of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as a starting point for an antiwar message as powerful in 2013 as ever. (“Blood is dripping from our hands as we raise them to salute.”) She also debuts the inspirational “Before The Fall,” with its reassuring message that “You will make it through. You will find that new beginning buried under all the hurt.”

Aimee Then there’s Karlin, once again lending her gorgeous pipes to the three-quarter beats of “The Busiest Corner Of The Street,” telling herself and the multitudes who pass her by that “I deserve to be heard, just for once in my life,” then returning with the torchy, honky-tonk “Fool’s Gold.” (“I ain’t lettin’ my baby go, ‘cause I want you, yeah, do I love you? No!”)

Newcomer Wallace (another CSUFer) follows his stellar work in Chance Theater’s Rooms: A Rock Romance and West Side Story with a noteworthy Coeurage debut which has him soloing the racy “Kid With A Heart On” and featured as the ill-fated victim of Donelle’s “So… what do you think?” in “The Haircut.”

Completing the all-around sensational cast is Hitchcock blonde Mills, soloing the introspective “Here We Go Again” (“Same old story, same dead words. Some things never change”), then showing off her gift for comedy (and dance in a tutu) with “The Ballerina’s Lament,” a blues-with-a-beat number that advises fellow ballerinas-in-life, “When the shit hits the fan, you pick up a pen and draw a new floor plan.”

As in 2011, the entire cast open the show in six-part harmony with the bluesy title song (“The trouble with words is when things get rough they carry you away”), close it with “No Words” (“No words to make you understand: The scent of the rain, the longing to dance…”), and blend voices mid-cycle to the Dixieland blues strains of “Gotta Get Laid,” with The Men harmonizing that “I need to get laid” and The Women voicing agreement: “You need to get laid,” because “A little sex goes a real long way!”

Wagner and Roque have great fun attempting to pick up women with the worst “Pick-Up Lines” on record, and Mills and Karlin exchange insults over mimosas in “Complimentary Bruch.”

Finally, The Trouble With Words 2.0 combines the sensual Brazilian cha-cha/samba rhythms of “Sextet” (“I love the way you love me. I love the way you hate me”) and the tango beat of “Don’t Try To Go” (the latter duetted terrifically by Wallace and Mills) to end Act One with a double bang that showcases the triple-threat ensemble’s sexy, sensuous dance moves in a pansexual pas de six sensationally choreographed by Janet Roston, the most spectacular—but far from the only—contribution the recent Ovation winner has brought to TTWW Redux. (Other numbers which benefit from Roston’s choreographic gifts and the cast’s fancy footwork are “Pick-Up Lines” and the Wallace song-and-dance showcase “The Kid With A Heart On.”

Cast All of the above has been directed by the brilliant (and recently Ovation nominated) director Patrick Pearson, once again lending supreme creativity and flair to The Trouble With Words.

And it wouldn’t be The Trouble With Words without musical director Nabours himself on keyboards, joined by his band of crackerjack musicians: Brian Morales (responsible for the production’s gorgeous orchestrations) on reeds; Brian Cannady on drums, percussion, and mallets; David Lee on guitar and banjo; Taylor Herb on cello and bass; and Darryl Black on violins. (One of the evening’s many pleasures is watching the onstage backup band switch from instrument to instrument, often mid-song.)

The Trouble With Words 2.0 brings aboard an entirely new design team, beginning with scenic designer JR Bruce, who makes ingenious use of The Lost Studio’s stage, twice the size of TTWWII’s much smaller space. There’s also Susan Hallman’s vivid, dramatic lighting design, Bradley Lock’s smashing bevy of rainbow-hued costumes (plenty of costume changes for 2013), and Roque’s varied assortment of props. Last but not least come the invaluable contributions of sound designer Joseph V. Calarco and sound engineer/mixer Tito Ladd, who have solved TTWW 1.0’s only flaw. This time round the singers are miked, their voices (and Nabours’ lyrics) heard clearly over the orchestral harmonies of Nabours and his band. (Only in the highest-pitched notes could a bit of tweaking still be of use.)

The Trouble With Words is produced for Coeurage Theatre Company by Jeremy Lelliott. Abe Luke Rodriguez is stage manager and Zack Guilder technical director. Choreographer Roston is assisted by Erica Lyn Peña.

Certain performances may feature one or more of The Trouble With Words’ very talented understudies: Jessica Apperson, Ben Burch, Jesse Einstein, Rebecca Mason-Wygal, Eric Michael Parker, and Sammi Smith.

It once again bears repeating that Coeurage Theatre Company is “Los Angeles’ only pay-what-you-want theatre.” (They’ve even trademarked the slogan.) No one will be turned away for lack of big bucks, however those with deep pockets will likely be more than happy to dig deep.

Two years ago, I wrote that “it’s not too soon to declare The Trouble With Words well on its way to a New York run.” TTWW 2.0 brings it that much closer to the Big Apple. I also called The Trouble With Words “the first of many great things to come from [its] creator,” and Nabours’ two consecutive Ovation awards have borne out the wisdom of my words. Gregory Nabours is a star-in-the-making, and for proof positive, you now know exactly where to go. In fact, the only trouble with The Trouble With Words may be The Trouble Getting Tickets once word gets out that TTWW is back in town.

The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 3, 2013
Photos: Laura Crow

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