PSCS premiere of ‘The Last Day’ will no doubt see many more

“What would you do if you knew this was the last day, the very last day?”

Writer/composer Mike Reid and writer/lyricist Sarah Schlesinger already have many successful musical shows to their credit. And Reid has his own indelible connection to Penn State, as an All-American defensive tackle and number one draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.

So what happens when Reid and Schlesinger are invited by the Penn State School of Theatre to create a new musical, with a catch — meet, and use as their muse, twelve seniors who graduated from the school’s musical theatre program?

If artists crave a challenge, these two must thrive on it. “The Last Day” zeros in on the lives of a group of musical theatre students in mid-spring semester, working together on a number, when the crisis of one of their own becomes a window into everyone else’s blemished reality — and asks if they can somehow see it through together.

Jason Burke is a junior whose battle with unseen demons leads to his termination from the program. The chaos strewn in his classmates’ paths evokes a range of reactions from his classmates, from blame and rejection to self-reflection and speaking hitherto hidden feelings.

Reid and Schlesinger’s dialogue has an immediacy and the songs rise up organically to give each player a chance to be known as an individual and perfectly imperfect. The musical numbers range from quietly powerful to the strength of an anthem.

The minimal orchestration of keyboard, guitar, bass and drums under the direction of keys player Jennifer Peacock provides just enough backing for the vocals, which convey an earnestness.

Director John Simkins has each player genuinely imbued with the persona we see, so the emotion of the moment transmits to the viewer.

Once the opening scene offers a glimpse of Jason’s troubled mind, the second number “The Last Day” shifts into the positive power of musical theatre ensemble work, with smart choreography by Dario Natarelli.

When Jason arrives at the rehearsal, impaired but wishing for support, Dan Teixeira as Andy sings “What Do You Suggest?” and presents a compelling case for anger at Jason’s impact on his own narrow path to success. Jake Pedersen’s Simon sings “I Run” to reveal his own troubling dilemma of being true to oneself or living a lie to please one’s parents. Jack Maloney’s “You Have No Right” lashes out passionately not at Jason himself but at his unmoored vantage point.

But it’s when the troubled Jason, rendered with deep integrity by Caleb Taylor Smith, at last reveals the source of his own struggle, and his perceived inability to withstand it any longer, that the others learn his truth and must choose how to react.

As tensions build, Amina Faye as Nina brings everything to a crisp instant with “The Boy I See.”

There are numerous memorable details. Kate Wild as Manda leads a poignant duet with Jason in “Lonely for You.” A wonderful trio emerges with “Like They Do” by Faye, Wild and Becca Suskauer as Casey. Ariana Notartomaso digs deep as Angie delivering “I Don’t Wanna Feel This.”

The ensemble’s unfettered reprise of “The Last Day” unleashes a collective moment that not only suggests something has been learned from a near tragedy, but leaves a meaningful echoing for the viewer/witness long after leaving the venue where all this happened.

The clever scenic design by Michael Schweikardt uses large mirrors and fog to gain multiple effects and facile scene changes. The sparing bits of raw language lend authenticity.

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