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Coming of Age

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

(back row, left to right) Katy Blake, Joe Paparella, (center row, left to right) Ryan Jesse, Susanna Rizzo, (front row, left to right) Maya Brettell, and Ethan Haberfield.
Photo by Raul Barcelona.
There are as many stories about the exact instant at which children become adults as there are adults. In his new revue being presented by the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Coming of Age, Jon Provan tries to capture these as broadly and representatively as he can. Childhood friends exiting adolescence realize their feelings for each other have become romantic. A young woman faces an unexpected pregnancy. Attending one too many funerals forces a man to obsess about his own mortality. And so on.

But despite the fine cast covering both genders of every age (Joe Paparella, Katy Blake, Ryan Jesse, Susanna Rizzo, Ethan Haberfield, Maya Brettell), creative direction (Ryan Pifher), and attractive, light choreography (Maureen Glennon), Coming of Age is almost as much of an endurance test as K-12 and college combined.

Provan's attempts to fuse Stephen Sondheim creativity with (Songs for a New World<–era) Jason Robert Brown narrative intricacy fizzle because of a lack of focus: Too often, the show seems more about checking off boxes (Frustrated Jewish Girl, Wife Who Wants More, Men Who Think They Missed the Boat, Confused Transsexual, etc.) than plumbing genuine, relatable emotions in genuinely theatrical ways.

In addition, Provan tends to substitute big concepts for actual intimacy, and his frequent digressions into unusual or arcane personalities or situations only make any drama even more remote. (Is it absolutely necessary to have forays into pre-statehood Nebraska, monarchical Britain, imperial Rome, and a pre-history mammoth hunt, all in the first act?)

The moments that work are usually forced to do so by the cast: Blake has a natural and mature plaintive quality that leads real gravity to what she sings as the resident middle-age woman; Jesse is incredibly likable, and his gift for simultaneously playing sexually confident and socially awkward adds nice complexities to his archetypal role of Young Man at a Crossroads; and Brettell packs a veteran's voice and uncluttered optimism into the part of the Girl, who's never quite as disconnected from her surroundings as she leads others to believe.

Still, it's tough for the actors to get much traction, even during their best moments. In composing 21 songs for the show, Provan hasn't knocked out a single star-turn, and most of what he has written is hyperextended and rambling, rarely settling for depth when breadth will do. The separate "wet dream" and "losing your virginity at the brothel" numbers, for example (which are unwisely presented back to back), don't end until they've explored every thought of all three men. (Running nearly two and a half hours, the show feels at least 30 minutes—and more likely 45 minutes—too long.) And though Provan is not untalented at teasing out melody, especially when the mood is jauntier, his finer themes too often get diluted by the excess, causing his songs to all drone similarly after a while, something that's not true of the more accomplished entries in this genre.

Those shows—Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever, both by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, being the most obvious and useful comparisons—are more closely tied in with the world in which we live and the way we live in it, making them far more personal, moving, and inventive than anything you'll find here. Through his subjects of choice and their execution, so often more concerned with variety than vitality, Provan has created a musical that forgoes its universal potential, each of the experiences it documents feeling, with each minute, like something that never could and never would happen to us. Sadly, Coming of Age isn't quite as grown up as it thinks it is.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
Coming of Age
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