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Idol: The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Saum Eskandani, Kaitlin Rose Mercurio, Jillian Giacchi, Katy Reinsel, Joe Walker, Philip Deyesso, and Kierstyn Sharrow.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Singing + insults = Worldwide success. That it took the television and music industries the better part of a century to happen upon one of the most successful equations in television history is about the only mystery surrounding the pop-culture phenomenon that is American Idol. (Aside from some of judge Paula Abdul's comments, that is.) The formula has been often copied - but never bettered - in recent years, proving that capitalizing on any runaway smash is much harder than it looks.

This lesson has apparently eluded Jon Balcourt, Bill Boland, and Todd Ellis, whose sad spectacle of a show, Idol: The Musical, just opened at the 45th Street Theater in a cloud of mustiness so thick you might expect it to center on a competition called Vaudeville Idol. But no: The writers make it painfully clear it's about that current top-of-the-charts TV show and one of the most dynamic, appealing "losers" it's ever featured. After this, though, both American Idol and Clay Aiken might want to change their names.

That Aiken finished second to Ruben Studdard in the TV show's second season has never mattered to anyone - especially Aiken, whose down-home attitude and excellent, unmannered voice have helped his career outstrip Studdard's nearly every step of the way. So this show's basic premise, that a group of devoted Aiken fans would do anything for the opportunity to sing with him in an upcoming concert, is not only possible, but perhaps even probable. Granting it much additional leeway would be pushing it.

In the semi-grand tradition of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Boland (book and lyrics), Balcourt (music and lyrics), and Ellis (original concept and additional lyrics) have made their obsessives a gang of lovable losers who admit they're "the misfits of the community college graduation class." There's the homeschooled piano nerd (Philip Deyesso), the country singer who's nervous around girls (Saum Eskandani), the know-it-all blabbermouth girl (Kaitlin Rose Mercurio), the Goth chick infatuated with death (Kierstyn Sharrow), and so on, all of whom have found in Aiken something they feel is missing in themselves.

Just one problem: They completely lack the necessary talent to provide backup for Aiken. So, they enlist the help of the only one of their brood ever to make it to the auditions (Katy Reinsel) and her retired-showgirl aunt (Dawn Berry) to help them brush up. Hijinks, pairing off, and double-crossing ensue - as do tsunamis of dramatic predictability that most After School Specials and Disney animated features would reject as too old-fashioned.

"It looks like a bad accident - I just can't turn away from it," Reinsel's character says of the kids' act at one point, a sentiment that also describes most of what transpires. From the opening number, in which the cast (attired in monk-like robes) intones their love at the feet of a giant Aiken statue, to a scene in which the country singer and star basketball player (Joe Walker) act out their deepest Chappendales fantasies, to a frenetic group number called "Quakin' For Aiken" and a solo dance with an in-progress bust called "Burnin Hunk of Clay," and a duet in which the Goth girl hangs her doll with a chain while the nerd's pants fall down, Idol: The Musical resembles a bottom-tier Fringe Festival spoofsical that's mistakenly wangled its way uptown.

Dan Tursi's direction and choreography is functional at best - much like the performances, which generally lack the realistic grounding needed for cartoons to be either funny or poignant. Barry brings a bit of broken-down charisma to her past-her-prime character that gives us a glimpse at what once might have been, and Reinsel displays the show's best voice and a hint of fiery personality in the show's bitchy best song, "Prima Donna Fabulous." That you find yourself rooting more for the show's villainess than the heroes is the least of the show's problems.

Far more devastating is that, in its last 20 minutes or so, the show takes a real turn toward the serious, and makes a few pointed comments about embracing your own identity regardless of the slings and arrows you must endure. The final scene, and the graduation finale song it contains, strongly suggest that had Balcourt, Boland, and Ellis listened more clearly to their own hearts, they could have gotten a good show out of just that idea. With Idol: The Musical, however, they haven't even come William Hung close.

Idol: The Musical
Through September 2
45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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