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Off Broadway Reviews

Between the Lines

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - July 12, 2022

Arielle Jacobs and Jake David Smith
Photo by Matt Murphy
There is something very comforting about genre fiction. Readers have instant familiarity with the character types, settings, and plot points, and they know what to expect from the book before they turn the first page. Of course, the best writers find ways to make the formula fresh and invigorating. Within the first few minutes of Between the Lines, currently running at the Tony Kiser Theater, audiences may have the feeling they are watching what one might call a "genre musical" of sorts. The names and situations may be different, but the individuals, conflicts, and to an extent even the songs seem recognizable from a host of other shows.

The musical's set-up instantly brings to mind Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, and Jagged Little Pill, with a dash of Matilda thrown in for good measure. Based on the 2012 novel by mother-daughter authors Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, Between the Lines has been adapted for the stage by Timothy Allen McDonald and directed by Jeff Calhoun.

The show focuses on Delilah (a terrific Arielle Jacobs), a socially awkward high-school junior being raised by her mostly absent, overworked, single mother Grace (the always reliable Julia Murney), whose husband has recently taken up with his new family. At school, Delilah is bullied by the popular kids (Will Burton, Jerusha Cavazos, and Sean Stack, all very good) led by queen bee Allie McAndrews (suitably detestable Aubrey Matalon stepping in for Hillary Fisher at the performance I saw). Delilah has the support, though, of Jules (Wren Rivera, excellent), who is described as a "nonbinary Goth badass" and can be counted on to confound the bullies with her brilliant ripostes. The adults at the school are represented by an eccentric and lusty librarian named Ms. Winx (Vicki Lewis, who seems to have been away from New York's musical stages for far too long), the school psychologist Dr. Ducharme (John Rapson), and a randy chemistry teacher (Lewis, who plays five different roles hilariously).

Delilah finds escape from her world through literature, and she happens upon a children's fairy-tale book in the school library. She is instantly smitten with the illustration of the dashing prince in his tight tights and with deep dimples, and she keeps returning to the image. On one of her illicit peeks, she notices a hand-written "Help" on one of the pages. It disappears by the next day.

Before long, Prince Oliver (Jake David Smith, who is charming while also making the most of those tight tights and deep dimples) is able to escape from the book and temporarily leave the story that includes a dimwitted princess (Matalon), evil queen (Murney), scheming villain with a penchant for butterflies (Rapson, a standout in the alternative reality), and a man-turned-into-a-dog (Burton). Nevertheless, Ollie, as the prince likes to be called, feels trapped within his fabled existence and desperately wants to rewrite his story to include Delilah.

The Cast
Photo by Matt Murphy
The fairytale world comes to life with the color and bright costumes of an animated Disney film. (Tobin Ost's scenic design has the cleverness of a pop-up book, and Jason Lyons's lighting adds a requisite magical aura. Caite Hevner's skillful and playful projections are especially effective in creating a cartoon-like milieu, and Gregg Barnes's enchanting costumes and J. Jared Janas's droll wigs seem lifted from a parade at the Magic Kingdom.) In revealing the behaviors of storybook characters when the book is closed and hidden from a reader's gaze, the musical has elements of Toy Story. In its depiction of a character within a work of fiction falling in love with someone from the real world, the musical evokes Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Unfortunately, the characters in the story are not nearly as endearing as Buzz Lightyear and his pals, and Delilah and Ollie do not have the romantic chemistry nor the aching yearning to escape their own realities that drive the celluloid leading man and downtrodden young woman in Woody Allen's film. As a result, while Delilah's circumstances become more and more desperate and as people question her mental health, the musical is not emotionally involving enough.

This is not helped by the rather generic score by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. There is a degree of pop pleasantness to songs with metaphorical literary titles like "Another Chapter," "A Whole New Story," "Say It in Other Words," and the title song. But many of them repeat pseudo-inspirational sentiments about the will to change and hopes for a brighter future. As Grace sings in "Start Again Tomorrow," "If you give it your all/ Then your dreams'll come true/ And we'll start again tomorrow." If they weren't presented so sincerely, some of the songs might appear to be parodies of uplifting musical ballads.

There are a few amusing numbers, such as Ms. Winx's romantic excursions into Pride and Prejudice with "Mr. Darcy and Me," and the smitten dog-man Frump's "Out of Character" sung to the fairytale princess. In both cases the songs benefit from the playful and wonderfully executed choreography by Paul McGill.

As a genre musical, Between the Lines does not break new ground, nor does it invigorate the formula. The performances are quite good and, visually, it's quite impressive, but the show overstays its welcome at nearly two-and-one-half hours long. Still, there are moments of undeniable allure that will entertain younger audiences. To torture another literary allusion, the show is the equivalent of a summer read. It may not be a great work of art, but it offers a pleasant diversion in the dog days of July and August.

Between the Lines
Through October 2, 2022
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: