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Academy
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


With its production of John Gregor’s With Glee in 2007, the New York Musical Theatre Festival established for itself an impossibly high bar on an admittedly limited genre: the boys’ boarding school musical. True, Spring Awakening was in vogue at the time, so boys taking Latin classes and singing of their angst wasn’t that much of a thematic stretch. But Gregor’s lovable, bountifully tuneful tribute to private education was one of a kind then, and remains so now, even compared with John Mercurio’s game but unsatisfying 2009 entry into the roster, Academy.

Mercurio’s show at the TBG Theater, which was originally conceived and developed by Andrew Kato for South Florida’s Maltz Jupiter Theatre (where the show premiered last year), suffers mainly from its inability to decide what it is. In some ways, it’s a coming-of-age comedy, following the attempts of young Benji (Steven Kane), to fit into the puffily prestigious St. Edward’s Academy for Boys, despite being ill-equipped for everything from classes to making friends. In others, it’s a morality tale, concerned with the adolescent dissemination of concepts like “right” and “wrong” without parents’ guiding principles. It’s also a vague retelling of Faust, with Benji’s older cousin, Amory (Corey Boardman), and his friend, Michael (Wilson Bridges), betting that they can convince Benji to break as many of the school’s rules as possible to prevent being ejected after his first year.

The ideas are genial enough, but as woven together here they don’t easily mesh. Because the show takes place almost entirely in the school’s hallways and dorm rooms, you get no sense of the supposedly blistering academics that are ruining Benji’s hopes for the future; at most, his “selling his soul” feels like a tangential trouble. Plus, apart from a vague rivalry between Benji and Amory, which is explained only very late in the show (of course), there’s little evidence of the community or camaraderie that might help raise the stakes. Jason Edward Cook has a minor role as a fall guy in one of the more dangerous schemes Benji pursues, but potentially interesting supporting characters such as the insecure Gert (Antonio Addeo), the effeminate Regan (F. Michael Haynie), and BMOC Conrad (Joseph Medeiros) are handed only a few lines, and the remaining actors (Lyle Colby Mackston and Gabriel Violett) are given fewer still.

This makes it difficult for the score to find its ideal focus. It’s highly attractive musically, suggesting the raw energy curdled by huge expectations that’s just right for these boys, and it’s far more distinctive than Mercurio’s shaky-legged 1940s mash-up, A Time to Be Born (from the 2006 Fringe Festival). But only one song, “There Is a Spirit,” captures the depth of anxiety within these boys’ lives, sliding effortlessly from the chapel at mass into their meandering minds as they fret about their weight, their friends, and so on. The remaining numbers are largely of the “Will I succeed?”, “Why can’t I succeed?”, and “I’m going to succeed” varieties that school settings unwittingly invite, even when the plot’s darker turns would seem to require more pungent introspection.

Director John Carrafa’s casual staging is serviceable for the subject matter, as are the performances. Everyone sings well, but no one claims a personality strong enough to pierce through the generic writing, which can make the slower scenes as tedious as an algebra lecture. Overall, it’s a well-meaning show that still doesn’t know well enough what it means. As one character observes, “Greatness requires you to color outside the lines,” and Mercurio is currently struggling to balance his own artistic inclinations with the strait-laced conservatism a boarding-school story demands. But if Mercurio can unite the best elements of Faust and With Glee with his own unique moralistic outlook and musical voice, Academy could end up as both a good show and a valuable learning experience.


Academy
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival