35MM is subtitled ‘a musical exhibition’. The show guides us through a collection of photographs and offers snapshots of lives, loves, and losses. The show succeeds on the quality of some of its songs and cast. Where it doesn’t quite hit the mark is when the theme is so diffuse we fail to feel for the characters, and when the songs are so rooted in pop convention that the performers struggle to find any drama.
When composer/lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver chooses to make us laugh, he does so admirably. In the so-called ‘song-cycle’ bracket of recent American musicals, it is the comedy numbers which truly hit home. Rosie Ward took the lead in ‘The Ballad of Sara Berry’, a campy disco track charting the rise and fall of a prospective Prom Queen. She was great, the song was hilarious, the audience loved it. Kirsty Marie Ayers’ big make-‘em-laugh moment was her song ‘Twisted Teeth’, which proved to be a romantic ballad for the Twilight generation. Her singing was flawless, the comedy was precise, the writing was witty. Unfortunately, both of these women had also been subjected to songs which were desperately sad, and it’s nigh-on impossible to make an audience member really feel for character who has only just appeared, and will be gone at the next click of the shutter.
The three guys suffered similarly at the hands of the writer, with the added complication that their parts were mostly exceedingly high and loud. Niall Rooney stood out with a more genuinely soulful voice, and his first emotional number ‘The Seraph’ really pierced the heart. In later songs, as with the others, he was forced to stand and wait as the music goes on an 8-bar instrumental break without any dramatic intention. As a cast, the five of them were faced with some devilishly tricky ensemble passages, but most of these didn’t quite come off in the heat of the moment.
I would have preferred to experience these musical postcards in more of a concert format, since what little staging there was merely served to highlight the lack of drama. A CD version is on sale – which, if paired with the photos, seems to me to be a more fulfilling way of engaging with the subject matter. To re-enact a photograph on stage (musically or otherwise) is to take something permanent and make it fleeting. By taking heavy subject matter and squeezing it into throw-away three-minute songs, 35MM is less SLR and more like a disposable camera.