Striving for a better ‘Standard’

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First Posted: 5/20/2014

Look back a century and you will see that society has changed quite a bit – but there are still nagging pieces of the more unsavory side of humanity that remain, and “Standard Time,” set to hit the F. M. Kirby Center stage May 23, throws the spotlight on such proclivities.

“It’s a look at the last 100 years in America, seeing what the different social conflicts are that have arisen and prejudices that were there, and still are today,” said Jeff Eckstein, the show’s associate producer. “A lot of people will deny it, but they’re there, if even in lesser forms.”

The dance musical, a production of Mark Stuart Dance Theatre, features 14 dancers, four vocalists, and a five-piece orchestra. It is divided into three acts, with each focusing on a different time period. The first, set in the 1930s, focuses on the chasm between rich and poor, when an unlikely romance develops between a boy and girl who come from opposite ends of the societal class spectrum.

Act Two throws audiences into the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and a black boy and white girl who find they are drawn to one another, only to have racial tensions come between them.

Act Three is of the modern age, set against the evolving landscapes of gay rights we know today. It focuses on a man and woman who are married who must ultimately face down their individual demons to discover their true selves.

“The unifying theme here is tolerance,” Eckstein said, “and that if we as a society learn from our mistakes and prejudices, then we can do better as time moves forward. The idea is to educate everyone on these lessons and inspire us all to be better human beings.”

The message is one that is carried out daily through the local proponent for LGBT rights, the NEPA Rainbow Alliance.

“Mark Stuart’s production is nothing less than an artistic masterpiece, where the stage is a canvas for the convergence of class, color and change,” CFRE, Founding Executive Director John Dawe said of the production. “But, I believe technical skill and artistic prowess, while impressive, are second to the cultural shift from ignorance to tolerance to acceptance that happens time after time in the evolution of humanity. In this performance, it happens in three eras, but we see it happen every day. This is especially poignant with the struggle that LGBT individuals and families face here in NEPA.

“We envision a future where all people in Northeastern Pennsylvania can live openly and free from fear; where individuals, organizations, and businesses work collaboratively to provide an equal, inclusive community; and where we celebrate and nurture our diversity. Aptly named, we look forward to a time when equality is standard. ‘Standard Time’ will do that, for a brief time this Friday.”

Eckstein has hope that the message of the show is everlasting, if even for one individual.

“I always say we’re not just doing art for art’s sake,” he said. “We’re here to tell a story, we’re here to inspire people, we’re here to invoke change in the world, and that is exactly Mark’s vision as well. The idea being, ‘What can we do to, in a sense, change the world?’ It sounds like a big task, but the truth is that you start with one person.

“As Mark says, if you can change one person’s mind, make them think outside the box, or take a step back and examine the world in a different way, then that’s how it all starts.”

The beauty of “Standard Time” not only lies in its message, but its sheer simplicity. The scenery is minimal, the costuming basic, and there is no dialogue at all, the song lyrics being the only thing to carry the performance through – yet the presence of those on stage is as powerful and loud as the message that underlies the entire show.

“It really focuses on the dancers,” Eckstein said. “There is no spoken word except the music that is coming from the singers of the band, so it’s literally the words of the songs that have been woven together from each time period that is telling the story.

“Even for the dancers, it’s not necessarily just about their movement, but the presence they bring along with it. There are some moments when these people are just standing there a certain way, or breathing a certain way, and it just draws you in.”

The music is era-specific, with Act One showcasing Sinatra-esque tunes, Act Two drawing on R&B and soul songs, and Act Three focusing on hits from the 2000s.

Eckstein said the lack of dialogue could certainly be seen as a challenge, but with the right people, it’s proven to be something incredible.

“When I do concerts and operas, I’m always asking the singers, ‘Do you understand what you’re singing about? Do you understand why this is happening?’ It’s not just about sounding beautiful; we need to bring out the emotion, and that’s the exact thing we’re asking of these dancers.”

The talent is certainly stacked in this production, boasting cast members from Broadway hits like “Wicked,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” “The Lion King,” and “Billy Elliot.” It also stars Tyrone Jackson from NBC’s hit musical drama “Smash,” and CJ Tyson, who is Madonna’s personal trainer and has also worked with Beyoncé.

There is also a name on the list that may be familiar to locals: Jaime Verazin, a Shavertown native who not only dances in the show but serves as assistant to the director. She has danced with the international dance company Momix for many years, danced at the Metropolitan Opera, and was on “America’s Got Talent” in the top 12 last year.

This is the second public performance of “Standard Time;” the first took place in September in Lancaster. “Time” is currently in the grips of a long process to a Broadway stage – though Eckstein said the show is actually on a fast track.

It went through a series of workshops in New York for two and a half years before hitting the Lancaster stage.

“It usually takes years and years to even get a first public performance,” Eckstein said. “The interest in the show has been so big and so overwhelming from the Broadway community that we were able to have the public premiere only two and a half years from the show’s inception, which is an unbelievable pace.”

The show has been invited to a two-week stint in Tokyo in early 2015, and then Eckstein said it’s on to an official pre-Broadway house for six to eight weeks before making its hopeful Broadway stage debut in 2016.

Throughout the process, the show is constantly changing.

“It’s always being reworked,” Eckstein said. “What can we make better? It’s not necessarily just the choreography, but everyone talking among themselves. ‘What are we trying to say here? What is the story? Why did we put this movement in this place?’”

Despite any changes it may go through, the core message will remain the same, carrying with it hope for a world that will move past its prejudices and, even in the face of possible new ones, will conquer those, too, bringing forth a world standard: equality for all.