The teen coming-of-age saga endures as a genre because those experiencing late adolescence for the first time crave an outlet for their agony, and those who've survived it need to laugh about the awkward absurdity of it all. The musical theatre has certainly not been immune in recent years, due in no small part to the splash made by Spring Awakening and its myriad imitators. But few of those have been as arid, unruly, and unsatisfying as Trouble, the morose misfire playing through Wednesday at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Despite boasting a cast of enthusiastic young performers, who seize every opportunity to showcase their robust voices and gym-carved bodies, Trouble is neither energizing nor sexy. Instead, Michael Alvarez (book and direction) and Ella Grace (music, lyrics, and vocal arrangements) have created a soggy shrug of a work that appropriates universal themes and a thoughtful structure in service of a story too cluttered to convince as ever having happened to anyone. Rare indeed is the dramatic property that makes the American Pie franchise look like the height of sophistication, but this one manages it.
Its biggest problem is its unwillingness to pick its battles, to distill for us the people and experiences that matter most. What we get instead is a confused octet of late-career high-schoolers, whose lives alternately implode and intertwine in ways that don't significantly signal the writers' desires to catalog the crucial mileposts of the teen experience. Of the eight, there's of course a gay one, a sick one, one who can't choose between two boys, one who longs for the girl his parents despise, a cruel jock, the annoyed go-along who wants to reboot his life before it's too late, and so on.
They all collide at a beer- and music-fueled party, where their various deceptions, desires, and neuroses explode as their blood-alcohol levels rise, encouraging them to make bad choices with the wrong people, and put themselves in situations they'd know better than to enter were their brains and their hormones under control. After a literal orgy of undressed humanity caps off the first act (along with the requisite police visit), the kids must all cope with the only thing worse than their inebriated stupidity: the aftermath of the following day at school, when their actions catch up to them.
This is Trouble's best idea, and the one thing that suggests the creators had more on their minds than a garden-variety growing-up tale. But rather than demonstrating, through narrative and music, the intricacies of the relationship between The Night Before and The Day After, Alvarez and Grace settle for a wobbly, uninventive rock score that's willing to slum it onstage for a couple of minutes, but seldom long enough for a character to complete a thought or make a personal discovery. Unfortunately, that's a key part of how and why musicals work, and without it this one never has a chance.
The closest thing to a workable moment is "Best Birthday Ever," in which the cutting-inclined, depressed Jen (a soulful Sara Kapner), cries out to her dead mother while kneeling at her tombstone in the graveyard. It links her youth and inexperience to a more cosmic, eternal struggle for which drugs and drinking are not viable solutions, and makes you see her as a person rather than an archetype. "I Stalk You a Little Bit," for the gay boy (zestily played by Daniel Quadrino), is coarse, involving as it does an unsettling amount of underwear sniffing, but taps into the recognizable stress unrequited love places on one's mental faculties (and Quadrino sells it with as much comic verve as anyone could).
As for the rest of the songs and the rest of the cast, they share the same basic qualities: pretty but vapid, making loud sounds yet constantly failing to say anything of consequence. Even the choreography (by Jennifer Weber) is attractive but pointless, relegated mostly to the nameless (if lithe) ensemble members and usually executed far enough upstage that you have to squint to discern its relationship to the rest of the action.
If Alvarez and Grace are trying to craft a show as scattershot as life often is for 17-year-olds, they haven't succeeded. Without some unifying element, it all feels like a TV hooked up to a malfunctioning cable box that's randomly changing channels. It's possible that a shorter, tenser, and tauter evening might better highlight the angst the characters are suffering, but since I first encountered Trouble at last year's Midtown International Theatre Festival, it's only gotten longer (by some 20 minutes or so) and more chaotic — and not in the vivifying way you suspect the writers intend.
"Our hope for the show," Alvarez and Grace explain in a program note, "was to create a piece of theatre that would thrill, excite and connect to people both in and out of the theatre world, bringing a fresh, bold new direction to musical theatre." Those are admirable goals, but they'll be more achievable with a stronger understanding of the theatrical alchemy that characterizes all great musicals. Alvarez and Grace may eventually get where they want to go, but they'd be better off spending more time looking back at the many works that have done this same thing in a cleaner, realer, and more relatable way.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival