New York-style theater workshop comes to ICT

Written by Joe Stumpe

When it came to writing his first musical, Alex Wakim leaned on what he knows best: his Lebanese family’s background, mixed with his own American upbringing. The result is “An American in Beirut,” which Wakim will show to Wichita audiences in workshop form next month.

“It’s a story I think is worth telling,” he said.

And singing. Wakim, a Wichita native now studying film music at New York University, penned 11 original songs for the production, ranging from the title number to the moving “Voices of the Past” and the humorous “1/32 Lebanese.”

Wakim and his cast are presenting the show at the Crown Uptown Theatre Aug. 15–16.

Wakim grew up in Wichita, the son of Dr. Antoine Wakim and his wife, Mimi, who both came here from Lebanon. That history and Wakim’s own trips to the Middle Eastern country helped provide the setting for the musical. The story involves two Lebanese Americans, Ann and Jack, who meet in Lebanon. Ann, although only 1/32 Lebanese, is intent on finding her heritage. Jack, who’s one-fourth Lebanese, is trying to launch a dating app for Lebanese singles.

Naturally, they fall in love — with complications.

“They just see the world quite differently,” Wakim said. Some of the show’s comedy stems from Ann “trying really hard to be as Lebanese as possible and it’s not working.”

In that respect, the story is about the two young adults exploring their Lebanese backgrounds. But, Wakim said, “The bigger question is how do we deal with our ever-changing relationships. That’s the musical I want to write.”

Providing another perspective in the musical are an older married couple, Nabila and Elie. In addition to the four cast members, there is a chorus of four singers.

Wakim describes the songs as a mix of Middle Eastern, jazz, traditional music theater music and more. “Whatever can tell the story best is the right music.”

The staging of a musical is a story of its own. Wakim said a workshop performance “is really an early stage in the process,” although a step beyond the reading held last year in Manhattan, Kansas, where Wakim earned a music composition degree prior to attending NYU. Since writing the music, getting this far has been a two-year process, and Wakim said the production is still very much a work in progress.

A French writer based in New York, Chantal Bilodeau, is currently writing the script conceived by Wakim. Wichita voice and piano teacher Emily Sternfeld-Dunn is serving as musical director while K-State associate professor Jennifer Vallenga will direct.

Wakim will be actively seeking audience feedback about what works and what doesn’t. For instance, he realizes he might need to cut a few numbers down to “eight really good songs.”

He hopes the audience will both enjoy the show and get into the spirit of the workshop performance, which he said is a common rite of theater in New York.

“I like to see this as an invitation to a journey.”

An American in Beirut
7:30 p.m. Aug. 15-16
Tickets: $20 for adults, $13 for students, military and seniors

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