Life in focus

Dare 2 Defy’s 35MM breathes life into photographs

By Don Hurst

Photo: Alan Ruddy (Voice 4) sings about the ‘hell’ of caring for toddler psychopaths, while Natalie Sanders (Voice 2) observes; photos: Don Hurst

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what if we turned those words into songs?” asks A.J. Breslin, the director of Dare to Defy’s 35MM: A Musical Exhibition, capturing a snapshot of the entire production.

35MM is a multimedia collaboration between composer Ryan Scott Oliver and his partner photographer Matthew Murphy. Oliver selected a collection of Murphy’s pictures and used each image as inspiration for the score. The music explores the imagined context underneath the moments Murphy captures.

Audiences should know this show is more of a concert than a traditional musical with plot and main characters. Every song is an individual vignette separate from the rest. While most of the stories deal with humans seeking connections and asking questions of faith, they neither tie together nor build into a climax as expected from a traditional musical. Audience members who understood that definitely enjoyed themselves more on 35MM’s opening weekend.

The understated set design reinforces the photographs and the songs, the focal point of the show. The set is bare—just standing microphones and Murphy’s pictures projected on a screen.  According to Breslin, the visuals work because Murphy’s art is full of colors and characters. “The way he plays with shadows makes you want to know what the story is about,” he says.

The minimalist set places a lot of responsibility on the actors. The small cast interacts with the audience in an intimate setting with nowhere to hide. “They only have each other up there,” Breslin says. “But that’s what this show is about. It’s a cheesy idea, but all of us have to stick together. We only have each other.”

In a social climate that seems to divide us into warring tribes, sometimes it’s nice to have cheese—reminders that we are all connected. Many of Oliver’s songs explore the human need to reach out to each other.

The music also isn’t typical Broadway musical fare. A live five-piece band, consisting of Nick Garvin, Rick Sanders, Bryan Sharpe, Jeremy King, and Josh Van Tilburg, runs through a dizzying spectrum of styles: indie rock, soul, religious cantus, and even punk. The sheer variety of music poses a significant challenge, but this band made it look easy.

The cast had no trouble keeping up either. Zach King, Danielle Kubasky, Skyler McNeely, Alan Ruddy, and Natalie Sanders all effortlessly displayed impressive range. The show is not improv, but the vibe the actors created was like a high energy, spontaneous jam session. The performers were always on stage, but when they weren’t singing they sat to the side and visibly enjoyed the music like it was the first time they heard it.

Dare to Defy chose the perfect location for 35MM: the Schuster Center’s 150-seat Mathile Theatre encourages the close connection between the performers and the audience, the greatest strength of the show. Staging this in a thousand-seat space would have been underwhelming. The predominately blue tinted lighting design, the throaty vocals, plus the fact that the Schuster Center allows alcohol in the theatre gives this show a cool, speakeasy vibe.

Make sure to arrive early for the pre-show. Local alternative band Kid Bigfoot warms up the crowd. They have a bluesy flavor, which complements the overall tone of the show. While the band performs, a slideshow of local photographers’ art plays on the screen behind them. It was important to Breslin to connect this production to the larger Dayton arts scene. Dare to Defy uses the pre-show to introduce audiences to unfamiliar works.

Looking back, I viscerally remember my reactions to Alan Ruddy’s humorous “Caralee,” a song about the hells of working as a manny in New York City and Natalie Sanders’ soulful “The Party Goes with You,” but I’m hazy on the photos that accompanied the music. The powerful performances of Breslin and music director David McKibben’s cast simply overwhelm the pictures.

35MM intends to place the photos and the performances on the same level, but that did not happen. What does happen is that 35MM clearly demonstrates the interconnectedness of art and ideas. A flat photograph inspires a composer to write a song that inspires an actor to deliver a great performance that inspires an audience to do something completely unexpected. Humble creations can escalate into something transformative.

“This show really is a snapshot of life,” Breslin says.

Dare to Defy presents 35MM: A Musical Exhibition Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. and Saturday Oct. 8 at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Schuster Center’s Mathile Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets range from $19.50 to $24.50. For more information, please visit

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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