The reintegration of pop music with musical theatre won't be furthered by the likes of No Boundaries, a particularly torpid entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which tries to update West Side Story's tale of racism and gang warfare to be more accessible for today's youths, but lacks that show's professional writing and creative spark behind the scenes.
What it has instead are seven credited writers (one is also the director) and a choreographer dedicated to turning the stage of the Theatre at St. Clements into a show-length hip-hop concert. Fine, as long as character and plot aren't left at the door; the key to the success of the greatest pop musicals is the subversive way they meld traditional musical-theatre concepts and an otherwise alien musical style. Shows that attempt to co-opt rock or pop styles without solid dramatic foundations seldom really work - just ask Frank Wildhorn.
So it doesn't matter that the songs in No Boundaries were written by people with impressive backgrounds in contemporary pop, and could easily have leapt straight from the rap racks of the Times Square Virgin Megastore - they don't deliver as part of a show. Endless repetitions of barely rhyming couplets, stressing simplistic sentiments that sound profound only because of brutal bass backing, don't necessarily theatre tunes make: "How can I identify with the choice I'm given, life I'm livin'" alone is repeated countless times, and that's just in the opening number.
The people singing that line are urban high-schools confronting issues of social and racial identification - no one is sure anyone can escape the class confines into which they were born. One, however, is desperate to try: Ali (Justis Bolding), a young white girl and musical prodigy who wants to forego a Juilliard education and write rap music. (Yes, I'm serious.) When she gets involved with an all-black rap band, Mistahs and Sistahs, a rift forms between her and her black friend Joshua (Duane McLaughlin), who is wrongfully accused of a vicious crime and comes to doubt his own ability to amount to anything in life.
Of course, only Ali's bandmates can solve Joshua's case - otherwise, this wouldn't be the made-for-MTV movie onstage that it is. And everyone learns, and sings about, something: Both Joshua's and Ali's families sing "Nothing's Changed" about the ever-perilous nature of race relations; band/gang member Russell (Omar Evans, giving the closest thing to an authentic performance) inculcates Joshua into his world of racial pessimism with the insinuating "Hard Time"; the show gets its closest to excitement with "Joshua Fought," a blaring gospel; and a number of other songs about familial disagreement and disillusionment round out the better portions of the score. (Jim Abbott is the musical director, and collaborated with Marcus Miller on the arrangements.)
These numbers seem like what librettist-director Liz Oliver wants to use to anchor the show, and generational differences in social perceptions of equality are indeed central concerns. But the ideas are developed through mere snatches of book scenes, and songs that don't explore the issues in depth: Ali and her mother sing one key song about this idea, "Do You Really Want To Know?", but it's just as earthbound and immature as the rest of the score, sounding as though it was written by and for people with attention spans of 30 seconds or less.
As such, the cast has a rough time: Dana Vance, Darren Matthias, Dean Irby, and Perri Gaffney turn in the closest the show gets to good work as Ali's and Joshua's parents, respectively; Rodrick Covington, as the de-facto band leader, has a better grasp on his angry-adolescent character than most of the other performers do, and Erica Ash gets the show's only real laughs as one of the Sistahs.
One senses a potential Mariah Carey or Celene Dion in Bolding, though her impressively robust, rangy voice is often at odds with the "don't notice me" personality she displays here. But both she and McLaughlin have trouble turning in consistently good work - they just as often fall under the pitch as land on top of it, and aren't yet experienced enough actors to fill in the countless gaps that Oliver's threadbare book and lackadaisical direction place in front of them.
What, for example, can one make of the late first-act number "Catchin'' The Move and Groove," in which choreographer A.C. Ciulla turns a simple shopping expedition into a stage-filling bump and grind? A scene of minimal plot importance used as an excuse for a company song and dance might well satisfy those who don't care that their time is being wasted as long as hip-hop music is playing. But No Boundaries erects plenty of barriers between them and people who like their musicals to not just move and groove, but also make real dramatic sense.
New York Musical Theatre Festival