Boys in a boarding school. Latin lessons. Two actors cycling playing all the adults. And, most telling of all, a program full of bios stuffed with credits that hardly extend beyond a university’s walls. These ingredients, incorporated into a musical about young people, threaten you with the certainty that what you’re about to see will either attempt to twist retro into something approximating hipness (at least as seen through trifocals) or be willing to settle for square.
Yet With Glee, the endlessly winsome musical that just opened at the 45th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, manages to avoid both by embracing traditional musical-writing know-how unapologetically and honestly. Those who believe every musical must innovate, or that classic construction is more worthy of mocking than replicating, won’t understand a musical this open-hearted. But it’s got the capacity to speak loving volumes to anyone for whom the old ways aren’t worth discarding merely because they’re old.
The opening number, wryly titled “Bad Kids School,” needs only 30 seconds to reveal itself, and the show, as the real deal. A magical montage depicting five boys being shipped off for a year at the Westbrook Academy in Maine, it rotates rapidly between cars and living rooms and between anger, disappointment, and surprise. It may be the first brush strokes of an idealized world far removed from most of today’s young people, but its musical, dramatic, and theatrical values are so firmly in place, and the seven people singing through it are so likeable, it's an irresistible beginning.
The rest of the show is at least as good. It not only introduces the formidable showman abilities of its single author, John Gregor, but is also the best advertisement imaginable for New York University's theatre program: Everyone involved, from Gregor and director Ryan Mekenian on down, has either recently graduated from it or is currently working to do so. These talents, developed and developing alike, have coalesced into one of the most ingratiating shows of the year, at NYMF or anywhere else in New York.
Granted, much of this success comes from its keeping its ambitions small and its choices safe. Nathaniel (Greg Kenna) is a fireworks-loving attention-seeker , Sam (Ryan Speakman) is very poor while Scott (Justin Bellero) is unspeakably rich, Clay (Dan Lawler) loses himself in model-boat building during his parents' frequent fights, and the Broadway-loving Kip (Kevin Michael Murphy) is at Westbrook because his father fears he's gay. They're placed with unacceptable roommates, bicker uncontrollably, and eventually come to realize they're more alike than different, and... you know the rest.
But told without irony and performed without affectation, the story moves and engages just on general principles. You can't help but believe and accept these as young people singing above, below, through, and around their turbulent adolescent years, and that forces you to disarm most of your usual defense mechanisms. One major plot twist elicited audible gasps at the performance I attended, for example, and I'd be lying if I claimed I wasn’t fighting back tears as the newly bonded boys' year together drew to a close. The show feels so genuine on so many levels, the regular rules don't apply.
As for Gregor's score, it's a marvel of unadorned simplicity, recasting all the usually boring young-adult angst in cheerful-yet-respectful musical-comedy terms. Highlights include "Gaul Was Divided Into Three Parts," as the boys struggle through their first day; "If You Want to Be a Vanderberg," a frantic and fully American Gilbert & Sullivan take-off about the tribulations of being rich; the group therapy showstopper "Normal"; and the addictive road-trip song "Worcester." Kip's one-act musical, "Tomas," about a German soldier who massacres a bunch of English children, is a comic triumph because of its essential innocence.
The show is far from perfect: Billy Griffin's choreography is sometimes too chorus-line cheesy for its own good; the performers - who also include Michael J. Miller and Elizabeth Kerins as the adults - lack polish and the ability to consistently project over the piano-percussion accompaniment. But nothing can dampen With Glee's charm, or its curious knack for making high school and old-fashioned musicals the most happening places on Earth.
Venue: 45th Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, 1st Floor.