Do high-schoolers attending musicals about high-schoolers ever really see their lives onstage? If so, pray for the future: If we can believe recent shows like Fame and Bare, few hopeful things are happening in the lives of today's late-adolescent youth. A new installment in the teen-angst musical genre, Irrationals, doesn't offer a great deal of hope for improvement.
Like Fame, it concerns artistically oriented New York high-school students (these are at the High School of the Arts and Humanities). Like Bare, the show is playing at the American Theatre of Actors. Like both shows, this one aims to tell a no-holds-barred story of a group kids trying to survive their senior year to become adults in an uncertain world, and falls considerably short of the mark.
While lyricist-librettist Jon Marans and composer Edward Thomas are obviously writers of professional caliber, their work here strains against expectations and struggles to musicalize a group that probably can't be effectively drawn in run-of-the-mill terms. Delineating radically different types of people within one consistent realm takes the skill of a Michael John LaChiusa or a Jonathan Larson, the talent to pinpoint and highlight differences minute and enormous.
Neither Marans nor Thomas display quite that level of accomplishment; they reduce their characters to little more than archetypal status, and their situations to approximately the After School Special level of relevance. There is, for example, the drug-dealing philosophy student Desmond (Rodney Hicks); his multilingual brother Reggie (Brandon Michael Arrington); closeted lesbian Kimm (Pearl Sun); and so on. They're all watched over by their inexperienced teacher with unusual methods and a cloudy past, Nick Marco (Jim Walton), and his disapproving supervisor Sharon Groomes (Cicily Daniels).
Any of this sound familiar? Specific plot details are almost beside the point, though as you may have guessed, such familiar grounds as suicide, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, unrequited love, family conflicts, and money troubles are all trod in various ways, at least in the first act. In the second, this all degenerates into complete soap opera, leaving only a few fleeting glimpses of honest sentiment to peek helplessly out from under the mounting platitudes.
The score is an uneasy blend of styles, but only the two act finales - strict musical-theatre character work for Nick and his troubled son, Chris (Matt Mundy) - make any kind of an impression. As for the other numbers, there's a plaintive gripe for the students in "Stick It Out" (with its singular opening line, "When a peach rots, time to chuck it"); Nick's stay-on-task montage song, "Just About the Math"; and an implacably incongruous big-Broadway-style number (complete with sing-along) led by Desmond and Reggie, "A Very Charming Business." There's even the disco-infused "Don't Even Try" for Sharon, because what else would the cast's heavyset black woman sing in the second act?
Daniels puts over the number like a pro, and the rest of the company is no less dedicated in their scenes, songs, and dances (blandly, if energetically, choreographed by Cjay Hardy-Philip). But though director Martin L. Platt does a fine job of keeping the production moving, the show itself can't end very far beyond where it begins. When you know where the story is going after the first scene, the twists and turns along the way aren't going to make the journey much fun unless they're expertly, creatively crafted.
In Irrationals, they're not. The production's professional gloss, also represented in the graffiti-covered set (by Bill Clarke), lights (Jeff Nellis), costumes (Iracel Rivero), and musical direction (Cherie Rosen) makes this often unpleasant pill of a show easier to swallow than it might otherwise be. But you can't be blamed if, like the students in Nick's class, you find yourself checking your watch every few minutes, waiting for it all to be over.