Theatre Review: “Give to Shmuel a smile” with 11th Hour’s Big Red Sun World Premiere

Over a decade in the making, Big Red Sun made its World Premiere with 11th Hour Theatre Company last night at Christ Church Neighborhood House.  Written by creative team John Jiler and Georgia Stitt, brings us a coming of age story of a young teen, Harry Daimler, on a quest to learn more about his musical roots that were a direct reflection from his WWII hero father.

“World War II was, in a way, the beginning of the modern world. Before it, the average American died about a mile from where they were born. After the War, that figure grew to about 200 miles. Society was changing at a dizzying speed. Returning World War II vets probably felt, ‘our children will always be grateful.’ And we were—–to a point. But baby boomers felt their parents lost their way in the McCarthy-era red scares, and in the proliferation of the golf courses and the super-markets of the fifties. Many of them grew their hair long, swallowed drugs and made love-not-war, and the music changed—drastically. Our hope is that the story we’re telling—of a family fractured by the turmoil of that time—will feel are both historically important and as relevant as today’s headline,” said Jiler.
Stitt adds, “When we started writing this piece I regarded it as a slice of history in the way John describes it [above], but in recent years as we’ve been rewriting it, I’ve been thinking more and more that it’s about the importance of illuminating truth. I have enjoyed writing about a person’s quest for his own truth and living in a story that deals with the way one person’s truth affects everyone else’s. There’s something that feels both extremely historical and extremely contemporary about weaving that idea through the lives of these characters.”

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Kyle Segarra as Harry Daimler. Photo by Daniel Kontz

Both Jiles and Stitt were in the audience for opening night as well as all the 11th Hour Collaborators.  The energy from this opening night was much different than previous 11th Hour productions I’ve been to.  Perhaps it was the opening night electricity, the sold out house, the authors in the audience including Stitt’s spouse, Jason Robert Brown, or maybe it was the confidence in the material being presented to us.

Director Megan Nicole O’Brien, also 11th Hour’s Resident Director and Co-Founder, was able to strut her theatrical chops with the piece.  Her collaboration with scenic designer Christopher Haig was evident that this production was more about the story than the bells and whistles of a monstrous set.  Haig’s set looked like a 1940s bandstand adorned with decoupaged music sheets on an upstage proscenium. Complementing the design were costumes by Janus Stefanowicz and lighting by Mike Inwood.

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Michael Philip O’Brien, Rob Tucker & Marybeth Gorman. Photo by Daniel Kontz

With a small cast of 6, Kyle Segarra leads the charge as Harry Daimler, a 13 year old boy.  As a grown man, he took on the physicality of a young teen with ease and believability.  His parents, played by Michael Philip O’Brien (Eddie Daimler) and MaryBeth Gorman (Helen Ryan Daimler) were excellently cast and carried the heart of the plot with their love story.  Gorman’s performance reminded me of Talia Shire (“Adrian” in Rocky) and Yael Stone (“Lorna” in Orange is the New Black).  Both MP O’Brien and Gorman adorned New York accents that quickly deciphered our locale. The Daimler’s best bud from the good ole days is played by Rob Tucker (James L. Johnson).  Jamison Foreman and Hanna Gaffney play several roles throughout the show with great command.  Gaffney downright stole the show as French Babette with  ”Hello, Hello”.

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Kyle Segara as Harry Daimler. Photo by Daniel Kontz

The star of Big Red Sun is the score.  The story takes place in the 40s and the 60s.  The score scans the gamut of those 20 years with swing, jazz, and the start of rock ‘n roll. With a band on stage led by Dan Kazemi and the choreography by Kat Borelli, you wanted to grab a partner and hop up on stage and swing with the cast.  I was thankful to have had parents born in the 40s where I have a fond appreciation for this time period.  However, the core of the material was shedding light on a war torn era where music was an escape but the socio-economic climate was taking a disturbing turn.  Michael Philip O’Brien’s portrayal of a Jewish American exposing himself to discrimination and what it does to his core was gut-wrenching.  As well as a boy’s self-discovery and mother’s healing.

If you are ready to expose yourself to new material and need an escape, I implore you to attend one of the performances over the next couple of weeks.  You will not regret it.  If you go, bring a sweater!  Christ Church Neighborhood House always has temperature balancing issues.  Either sticky hot or freezer cold.  You’ve been warned!

Dates & Info:

Thursday, June 7 @ 7pm (Talk back following the performance)

Friday, June 8 @ 8pm (ASL Interpreted Performance)

Saturday, June 9 @ 8pm

Sunday, June 10 @ 3pm

Thursday, June 14 @ 7pm (Talk Back following the performance)

Friday, June 15 @ 8pm

Saturday, June 16 @ 3pm

Saturday, June 16 @ 8pm

Sunday, June 17 @ 3pm
A little taste of the score from GeorgiaStitt.com:

https://youtu.be/0_39Y5iek7Y

 

About 11th Hour Theatre Company

11th Hour Theatre Company is the only company in Philadelphia dedicated to producing all musicals, all the time. Intimate by design, 11th Hour creates a lasting experience with the audience by producing character-driven musical theatre.

 

11th Hour produces a broad spectrum of musicals that fill a niche in the diverse Philadelphia theatre landscape: musicals that spark the creativity of artists and the imaginations of audiences.  Over the past eleven seasons, they have produced seventeen full-scale musicals, nine of which were Philadelphia premieres.  In addition to the World Premiere of their first commission, Field Hockey Hot, the company has contributed to the development of several new musicals beginning with Angst, a ten-minute musical that premiered in the Spark Festival of 2005. 11th Hour produced the American premiere of Austentatious that went on to success at the New York Musical Theatre Festival; and a 29-hour reading of Fantasy Football, the Musical? before its production at New York University. Both Austentatious and Fantasy Football have since been published and are now professionally licensed. In the fall of 2014, 11th Hour partnered with University of the Arts to workshop Persephone Unplugged, a new twist on the classic Greek myth. With support from the Independence Foundation, 11th Hour recently commissioned their second musical from a local writing team, a Civil War-themed project currently titled Something Like a War.

 

11th Hour has received a total of fifty-five Barrymore Award nominations. Their work has been recognized with 15 awards, including five recently for last season’s Lizzie (including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical), and several individual awards for their artists.  Founding member Steve Pacek was also the proud recipient of the 2012 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist. In 2013, 11th Hour became the first-ever recipient of the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theater.

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