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The Yellow Wood

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A musical about a teenage boy suffering from attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is guaranteed no shortage of action. But what would at first glance seem a strength becomes one of the few detriments of The Yellow Wood, the winning but distractingly hyperactive new show by Michelle Elliott (book and lyrics) and Danny Larsen (music and lyrics) playing as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Adam (Jason Tam) has only one goal for the school day ahead: Memorize the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken" for his seventh-period English class. But those simple 20 lines become impossibly imposing on a day when he has to act as chaperone to his recently transplanted sister (Yuka Takara), cope with elections for class president that his friend Casserole (Randy Blair) has secretly involved him in, face up to the Korean heritage he's hidden from his friends, and figure out the mysteries of that alluring, yellow-clad free-spirit girl he always sees around (Caissie Levy), all without having taken his Ritalin.

You could find yourself craving a dose as well. The characters, up to and including the dragon-lady English teacher (a fiercely funny Jill Abramovitz), are delightfully drawn and for the most part avoid tired high-school tropes. But so much happens, it's hard to maintain a grip on what's most important: During his day, Adam participates in a free-wheeling world tour of his psyche in an art class and fashions living recreations of challenging math problems, reimagines a history lesson as a Legend of Zelda-style video game, endures a drama class performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and must wend his way through a Frost-inspired autumnal maze to learn the truth about himself - and master that pesky poem.

Much of the score, though, is marvelous, nimbly evoking family strife, educational torment, and exploding creativity with ever-shifting combinations of tunes inspired by everything from traditional Korean forms to contemporary musical theatre. Whether the songs are of the soul-searching (or soul-finding) variety, or delving more into adolescent unpredictability, the anticipation of each new number in The Yellow Wood is a joyous affair.

The cast plows through all this with aplomb and energy that keep you - and the show - grounded. The cast, too, is terrific: Tam, recently of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, is a marathon champion as the always-present Adam and captures his youthful energy without cloying. Takara attractively underplays Adam's sister, finding a plaintiveness in her that helps you, like Adam, see the true humanity in a young girl who hides her fear in an annoying exterior. Levy is a total pleasure as the troublemaking girl of Adam's dreams, and delivers more than her share of stunning vocals.

Tony winner and Law & Order: SVU star B.D. Wong has directed with grace and creativity befitting his acting performances, making the tiny Acorn Theatre stage into a swirling canvas of always-moving excitement. His ideas don't always find their full expression here - he relies on an overhead projector to set and change scenes when the music and lyrics are more than capable of that on their own. But in general, he creates beautiful stage pictures that colorfully communicate Adam's meandering state of mind with acute clarity.

What he really needs to do is tame and trim this unwieldy show so it doesn't wear out its welcome before it runs out of ideas. Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, The Yellow Wood is too stuffed with scenes and songs that linger too long and others that seem to exist only because the writers couldn't bear their excision. One of the most exciting numbers is the paean to nonconformity "Tater Tot Casserole," which Blair - who possesses a dynamite velvet foghorn of a voice - puts over into a showstopper despite its stating nothing you can't get elsewhere in the show.

I was also never convinced Adam needs to traipse through his mental forest as often as he does, let alone meet Frost for a private consultation. But perhaps he could serve as a model for The Yellow Wood's writers. Part of the point of the show is Adam's becoming convinced that the economy of Frost's words contain all the life lessons he'll ever need, and so much in The Yellow Wood is so good that Elliott and Larsen just might find that some judicious cutting would make all the difference between a good musical that lumbers and a great one that soars.

Venue: The Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street 3rd floor
Saturday, Sep 22nd at 4:30 pm
Tuesday, Sep 25th at 4:30 pm
Friday, Sep 28th at 8:00 pm
Saturday, Sep 29th at 1:00 pm
Monday, Oct 1st at 4:30 pm
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