part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
As Stephen Sondheim, Michael John LaChiusa, and many others have proven over the last four decades, a concept musical absolutely must have a concept. If that sounds simple, it is — and it isn’t. Mating your goal with your execution of that goal is what every playwright and composer aims for, but getting there usually requires more work and a stronger vision than all writers can supply. That certainly seems to be the case with Trouble, the rocky new “rock pop musical” playing at the June Havoc Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
Throughout the first act of this two-hour show, librettist-director Michael Alvarez and songwriter Ella Grace struggle to find the proper structure and sound for a seven-way explosion of adolescent angst. You wouldn’t think they’d have trouble, as any number of TV shows and movies have dealt with issues of hanging out, hooking up, and developing wisdom in ways both funny and probing. But without a bedrock theatrical foundation, a septet of untethered young people who don’t understand their own emotions, let alone how to contend with anyone else’s, aren’t naturally self-aware enough to sing their hearts out, or to satisfactorily convey the intended impression of all of them unknowingly frittering away the night when their childhood officially ends.
It’s at a party, of course, where this combination of alcohol, drugs, and seething hormones reaches its boiling point. James (David Errigo, Jr.) finds himself caught between his damaged ex, Hannah (Elanna White), and Sarah (Lara Hillier), the sexy girl he dumped her for. Nick (Jordan Wolfe) is a rich kid whose parents are moving to Washington, D.C., specifically to keep their son away from Jen (Audra Isadora), who’s bad news as much for her lack of money and status as for the psychiatric episodes for which she’s previously been hospitalized. Joe (John Wascavage) is an unassuming and nerdy guy who lusts after the most popular guy in school, Chris (David Ryan) — and is understandably bewildered when his affections are returned.
But this basic shuffling, orbited by vague fragments of exposition, is all that happens. Because there are no tangible goals (aside from getting lucky) for these people to pursue while getting plastered, they end up as listless and uninteresting as, well, teenagers. Far more vital and provocative is what happens following intermission. The day after, we see how each of the seven is haunted by a crucial mistake from the preceding evening, and is either poised to be propelled into adulthood or forever stalled at its threshold by how they cope with it. Feelings that had previously been theoretical and concerns that had been shallow and unbelievable take on a new urgency as they all discover exactly what they risked for one night of supposed bliss.
Unfortunately, almost everything gets in the way of telling this story. Alvarez’s staging is distractingly abstract, evoking little sense of time, place, or personality, and devolving by the end of the evening into a completely avant-garde swirl of confusion. (His mock-acrobatic sex scene and fight scene are almost indistinguishable from each other, and both are ridiculous.) Combined with his book, which does little more than sketch out the characters, and leaves most of their plot threads dangling by evening’s end, the rich opportunities for exploring the ins and outs of modern youth are almost entirely squandered. The score is likewise a near-complete loss: Grace goes for the emo Spring Awakening thing, complete with melodies that don’t fully resolve and vocals that fade into background noise, but there’s no heft to be found. Except for Jen’s surprisingly pointed “Best Birthday Ever,” in which she breaks down recalling the mother she lost years earlier, numbers are content with surface level complaints and not blood-deep connections.
The performers, too, wage an uphill battle all the way. Given the known limitations of any summer theatre festival, I’ll forgive the prerecorded music that none of them can project over without microphones. But none of the actors seems to have superlative training anyway, even by the screechy rock standards this keening, heart-on-the-sleeve composition style demands, so their renditions are rarely pleasant even when you can hear them. The biggest successes are Wascavage, who mines some legitimate laughs from his suddenly-skyrocketing Joe, and Isadora, who hints at the mentally unhinged anguish that drives her character. But everyone onstage, like the writers, needs to take bigger risks.
What works in Trouble is its elemental notion, the framework behind its concept. Alvarez and Grace do justify, however faintly, their reasons for making a musical out of this bleak chapter in these characters’ lives, and by the second act you do start sympathizing with them. Should anyone’s futures be held hostage by the few poor choices they made at one party? Is it possible to truly escape who you are or what your parents made you? And once you’re locked in a cycle of self-induced pain, is escape ever a possibility? These are questions well worth asking. But the writers need to pose them with far more clarity and purpose if they want the audience to stay around — and stay awake — long enough to hear the answers.
Trouble: A New Rock Musical