In just his second local show, CCM alum and up-and-coming songwriter Adam Wagner illustrates that while “falling in love” songs are fun, it’s the songs about love lost or missed or needing repair that are the most interesting.
Giving Up Later is a one-act song cycle written by Wagner, arranged by Zachary Dietz and ably performed by a small cast of mostly CCM students. Early publicity materials touted the theme of commitment and how giving oneself to another is essentially giving up future iterations of one’s life, future “laters.” That idea surfaces here and there in the show — sometimes in more pronounced ways than others — but it doesn’t really serve as a through-line. It’s more of a tone or vibe that all the songs have in common and less a literal theme.
(Photo: Kurt Strecker)
In that sense, the show is more demanding and therefore less accessible than Wagner’s previous Fringe entry, 2005’s Don’t Look Down. Written while he was still at CCM, that song cycle had a bubbly effervescence revolving mostly around first love, early love, flirty love. Giving Up Later’s songs mostly don’t have that joy and youthful energy. They tackle weightier issues: dealing with death, growing old with someone and finding the strength to turn the page when a relationship expires. It’s challenging, but in turn the songs are more complex and advanced than his earlier work. In other words, Wagner has grown up as a person and consequently as a songwriter.
Right out of the gate, he and the cast grab the audience with six great tunes. The prologue introduces the cast and its central figure, played by CCM freshman Ryan Breslin. He’s literally the center of the attention onstage and will be the one character carried through from song to song.
With tight harmony, “Walking Against the Wind” showcases the vocal abilities of the cast, and “Falling Forward” displays Wagner’s gifted ability to spin everyday clichés into lyrical treasures. A little funny and a lot sweet, it’s songs like these that manage to be both cute and heartfelt all at the same time. Wagner’s talents are undeniable.
Some old but good material also makes its way into this cycle. “When She Waves First” and “Traci’s Song” were both performed (and were personal favorites) in Don’t Look Down. “Traci’s Song,” particularly, makes for a nice standout moment for Chelsea Barker, who gives just enough to let the audience into the heartbreak but holds enough back to make sure we know her scars are on the inside.
Lori Valentine, former CCMer and local stage veteran, has a similar moment in “No U in Spain,” displaying a wide vocal and emotional range as her character throws herself in an overseas vacation to forget an old flame.
With so many songs spread around, each actor has more than one standout moment. But that also adds up to a slightly bloated run time (about 75 minutes).
The emotional double-punch at the end of the show, “The Angel in the Tow Truck” and “One Bad Choice,” about the central character’s relationship with his father and his need for closure, doesn’t quite land as solidly as you hope. It’s through no fault of the songs or the performances, per se. After almost 20 preceding songs, the show might have taken just a little too long to get to them.
Director Ashton Byrum stages the action as briskly as he can using a very Fringe-y set, dressed with spare tires lying about like at a junk yard or mechanic garage. But there’s a lot of material to plow through. Sometimes the tires were well employed; at others, they just seemed to be used for the sake of it. Regarding the set, patrons should note that the sightlines at New Stage can be difficult. So get there early to claim a good, comfortable chair.
Giving Up Later is a great step forward for a young songwriter. Part of the charm of Fringe Festivals is seeing that next generation of theater stars. Wagner is almost certainly that. One hopes that his next work might better combine the happy, catchy melodies of his first work with the complex, introspective, dramatic tunes heard here. That’s a combination to look forward to. Later.
– Rodger Pille