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Perfect Harmony

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Vayu O'Donnell, Scott Janes, Sean Dugan, Clayton Apgar, and Benjamin Huber.
Photo by Jim Baldassare.

The tinny wail of a pitch pipe might not be your idea of an invigorating call to arms. But in the bright and finely tuned Perfect Harmony, now playing at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, it's a sound that fills you with excited anticipation rather than dread.

This accomplishment from this comedy-with-music, which was written by Andrew Grosso (also the director) and the theatre troupe The Essentials, is even more remarkable given that it also incorporates another favorite bugaboo of "serious" arts lovers: teenagers. In high-school a capella groups, no less! Yet Perfect Harmony never spikes insulin levels to dangerous extremes, or winks until eye surgery is the only remedy. Instead, it tackles its spot-on satire of Behind the Music for the American Idol generation with an unflinching seriousness that, by evening's end, becomes unbearably funny.

Getting there, though, is a rockier endeavor, as it requires enduring not just one rise to the top of the regional kids' choir circuit, but two. And the scenes in which The Acafellas, the boys' group, and The Ladies in Red, the girls' answer to it from the same school, plod through their daily tribulations, personality conflicts, and battles with uneasy personal history, are seldom as original and lively as might be hoped. But as individual characters emerge and evolve, this consumptive collage comes into its hilarious own.

The Acafella's dueling heads - Philip (Vayu O'Donnell), who wants every song to say something, and Philip (Benjamin Huber), who's obsessed with winning Nationals - are the latest descendents of a decades-long grudge between their families that has somehow left them best friends but unable to speak to each other directly. The malapropism-prone Melody (Dana Acheson), the Ladies' leader, is dating Jasper (Clayton Apgar), the mute Acafella who is nonetheless that group's most soulful singer. Valerie (Margie Stokley) is the only Lady with absolute pitch, but can't bear to be looked at; slutty-spiritual Meghan (Amy Rutberg) has obviously studied at the Britney Spears school; and Ladies manager Kerri (Nisi Sturgis) would be a star herself if not for her lingering Tourette syndrome.

Amy Rutberg, Margie Stokley, Nisi Sturgis, Kathy Searle, and Dana Acheson.
Photo by Jim Baldassare.

By the play's final scenes, when success for both groups at Nationals is jeopardized by one singer's absurd drug problem, another's permission-slip deficit, and everyone's inability to communicate with each other offstage, the chaos unfolds with explosively giddy force that shouldn't be possible in a show this inconsequential.

The authors would apparently love to convince you that underneath all this silliness is some real profundity about the nature of fashioning relationships in a fame-hungry world. That never really comes through; Paint-by-comedy characters like the dumb jock-turned-smart singer JB (Scott Janes), the Eastern European "Mickey D" (Kathy Searle) who barely speaks English and confuses all her lyrics, and the adenoidal Acafella freshman Simon Depardieu (Sean Dugan) make that something of an impossibility. So much is fresh that you wish everything were. But on its own, isolated level, the show is never less than hearty, and past the halfway point is often nonstop hardy-har-har.

The performers' likeability, more than their musical gifts (which, while attractive, are not exactly earth-shattering), is instrumental in helping sell the show. O'Donnell and Huber are riotous in the increasingly extravagant ways they find not to talk to each other, while Acheson's English-mangling, elevated-attitude manner never fails to delight in its unintentional outrageousness. Rutberg's jaw-droppingly erotic take on "You Are My Sunshine" centers the show comedically, and her duet on Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" with the smooth-voiced Apgar rocks the story and the house in equal measure.

The quintessential moment of the evening, however, comes from one of the Acafellas's performance. Their rendition of a classic pop tune from the 1980s is punctuated with scrupulously aligned doo-wops and deadly serious hand gestures and full-out miming that would look more at home in an experimental production of the musical Show Boat. The number they're singing? "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." At Perfect Harmony, they won't be able to help it. Neither will anyone else.

Perfect Harmony
Through July 24
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets at TicketCentral

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