BC junior Daniella Sapone’s original musical tells the story of Isa, a person who stutters.

“How do you know you’re special?” Isa, played by Daniella Sapone (BC ‘25), asks in the opening moments of Lemon Water. If the opening night is any indication, Sapone can rest assured that she, her cast, and her musical are all incredibly special.

Lemon Water is a musical written by Sapone and her co-writer Maggie Broyles (CC ‘24), presented by CU Performing Arts League and directed by Jerry Dixon. It centers around Isa, a person who stutters, and follows approximately a year in her life as she navigates speech therapy, a family emergency, friendship and love, and theater auditions. A spectacular cast displays an incredible range of vocals and emotions. As a workshop production, the run is meant to develop the script and score, rather than present a finished product; but it was hard to imagine what improvements could be made to this already wonderful production.

Sapone has created something that touches the very heart of loneliness and trying, of broken, but unconditional, love, of not feeling understood. And for two hours, in the Minor Latham Playhouse on Friday night, we were there with her. At intermission, two people in front of me hugged in tears; at the end, the cast received the fastest standing ovation I’ve seen, and most of the people around me wiped away a tear (or several). 

Lemon Water is so touching in part because it speaks directly to its audience. When we first meet Isa’s speech therapist, Ms. Miller, played by the spectacular Erin Hilgartner (CC ‘22), it is in front of a corkboard with platitudes that we’ve heard a thousand times pinned to it. “Practice makes perfect,” reads one, and “Spread your wings and fly” another. (Later, when Isa rips some of these down, we cheer ferociously.) Ms. Miller is also eerily familiar. “I will fix you!” she proclaims dramatically, referring to Isa’s stuttering. Later, before a now-well-known reprise of a strategy that she’s taught Isa (that, spoiler alert, has never worked), she gives a TV-perfect smile: “You know this one!” 

Sapone and Broyles have a way of capturing moments that feel so real that they hurt. “It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. But in hiding, I’m safe,” Isa sings softly to her best friend Mia, played by Maya Debnath (BC ‘27). Isa’s explaining why she doesn’t want to audition for the school’s musical, and we get it. It’s the beautiful, haunting music; it’s the distraught look on Sapone’s face; it’s the simplicity of the lyrics that go straight to the heart. 

The audience laughs collectively over and over, and it’s a laugh that comes from going through something together, of feeling understood. “If you think you’re gonna cry, then just stop,” Merritt Madison (MS Dec ‘23) as Isa’s mom, Ramona, sings to Isa decisively, and later follows it up with “‘cause you really seem to cry a lot.” We laugh. We know what it’s like to hear that. Later, when Isa tries to explain her frustration over speech therapy, Ms. Miller responds, as if it is so simple, with “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right!” Our laugh has a bit of a sigh in it.

The musical is beautifully written and its pacing perfect as we jump from school to speech therapy to musical rehearsals to home. An incredible orchestra, conducted by Fanglin Yuan (BC ‘26), guides us through the night. Transitions between scenes are often grounded by keys played by Dallin Attwooll (CC ‘26). Minimal set design and simple, perfect costumes let the actors, music, and emotion shine. 

Of course, there are moments that fall a little flat: choreography in general, and particularly in a dream scene of Isa’s musical debut, doesn’t always work, and while it’s mostly amazing to have the musical mostly sung-through, there are moments when singing dialogue feels distracting, not intentional. Still, this is a workshop production, meaning that the musical is not yet in its final form, and these off moments do not detract from the emotional, wonderful piece as a whole.

“There’s something I love about endings,” Isa sings in the last number. “Like water, they’re not so dependable.” At the end of Lemon Water, I felt alive, understood, heartbroken, and hopeful, all of these things existing at once, contradictory and yet somehow not.

Sapone wrote in the program notes that Lemon Water “is a story about silence… about stuttering… about feeling alone, different, happy, excited, free, and silenced.” It is all of these things. It is more. Go see it. (And maybe bring tissues.)

The workshop production of Lemon Water has two more showings on Saturday at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased here.

Image via author.