Some people know why they got into Harvard. There’s a kid upstairs who summers at the Sorbonne sketching tourists and that obnoxious guy in section has five patents pending. But if I had to take a guess as to why Brian Ross Lowdermilk, Class of 2005, was invited up to the big H, I’d say it had something to do with writing a new, full-length musical called Transient Days.
Opportunities for Youth Productions combined Lowdermilk’s precocious musical ability (and lyrical verbosity) with a story by Zach Altman to create an exploration of teen heartbreak and sexual identity. The piece premiered last year under the auspices of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre.
Now, the original cast album has been released, in quite a professional package. Somewhat less professional, though, is the album itself, which is something like one might get if he compressed an entire season of Dawson’s Creek into an hour of musical interludes. I can just see maudlin teens looking out over that creek into the setting sun, waxing philosophical on life and love in this crazy world of ours.
That a musical about teen sexuality is angsty is not unexpected and therefore not an automatic strike against it. Yet one can express universal coming-of-age sentiments without the clichéd imagery of mythical battles and lyrics that aim at emotional complexity but couch them in overly simple terms.
But if the themes are old hat, and the songs repetitive in style and tone, the album is a testament to a talented cast. Altman contributes a thoughtful baritone to the lead role, and Justin Hopkins exhibits a rich, sweet voice, as the male love interest. But it is Siobhan Groves, the female component of the love triangle, who delivers the most exciting performance. Her sensitive execution of “To Let This Pass Us By” provides the show with its emotional high point.
As the song cycle progresses, Lowdermilk proves quite competent in the language of musical theater and exhibits an expressive musical vocabulary. R&B stylings and complex song structures testify to able musicianship. If Lowdermilk adds stylistic variety and distinctiveness to this tunes, he could create memorable musical theater.
As it is, the songs stretch too long and one sounds much like the next. In the torrent of words, there is little sense of character arc or development. The style of song is too static to convey the changing lives of the characters. It’s as if Lowdermilk wanted to express a hundred personally compelling ideas, but never paused to find the essential ones, let alone compose a memorable chorus.
The musical also suffers from a lack of wit. The songs, bogged down with lyrics reminiscent of tortured school-boy poetry, don’t allow much humor.
At the end of last semester, Lowdermilk left Harvard to transfer to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. It cannot be doubted that he will compose many future works, and they will certainly merit attention.
One’s first large-scale production is often intensely personal, with little room for objectivity. Now that Lowdermilk has proven his ability, he can turn his musical talent toward new horizons and broaden his aim to include subjects that may test his range.