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F#@king Up Everything
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray
Spring Awakening plus Avenue Q plus Williamsburg may not sound like an immediately winning formula for a new musical, especially one that wants to be hipper than either Young Broadway or Young Brooklyn. F#@king up Everything, by David Eric Davis (book, music, and lyrics) and Sam Forman (book), proposes exactly that arithmetic and adds up more squarely than you may expect. Whether this aggressively mild show about lovelorn twentysomethings, which is playing at the 45th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, really needs puppets, or whether its solid rock score is technically ideal for conveying emotions that rarely rise above basic romantic annoyance, are open questions. But it has real heart, something not every title in its genre can claim.

It is, however, a bit lacking in story. The issue at hand - whether the best-friendship of Jake (Neil Haskell), an indie singing heartthrob on his way up, and Christian (Noah Weisberg), who runs his own touring children's puppet theatre, will survive the interference of the gorgeous Juliana (Kate Rockwell), an aspiring singer herself - is barely enough to fill out the 100-minute running time. Juliana seems to have more in common with Christian: they're both straight, but both majored in Queer Theory. But Jake's bad-boy allure is hard for any woman to resist, and his habit of sleeping with every woman Christian has ever liked only increases the strain.

So when Juliana disappears with Jake on the night of her first date with Christian... well, things look bad - at least in that typical, it's-time-for-intermission kind of way. Much of the rest of the show is concerned with Jake trying to teach Christian to be the jerk all girls want, with predictably flimsy results. A featherweight secondary story, about whether Jake and Christian's mutual friend, Ivy (Jenna Coker-Jones), will end up with Jake's band's bassist, Tony (Leif Huckman), or Jake himself (whom she'd actually prefer), doesn't add much zest or tension as the plot waddles to the finish line.

One thing that really does is Liz Larsen, in a criminally tiny role as Arielle, the manager of the influential Mercury Room club where Christian is sure he can kick off Juliana's career. Larsen, a sexy-comic force of nature with a terrific voice, makes Arielle a flesh-and-blood woman who adds a dose of threat to the second act, and makes her minor-function role as a guidepost in Jake and Christian's relationship - they have a threesome with her, sort of - more invigorating and important than it ought to be. But Rockwell and Coker-Jones do sweetly straightforward work in their roles, and Weisberg - if occasionally channeling too much of Michael Richards's classic Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld - is an amusingly gawky presence without descending entirely into Jewish-neurotic parody. And all that's just enough to make you care - just enough - about whether this group will end up delighted or deflated.

Aside from the opening-number title song (which repeats that strong verb, minus punctuation, with mind-numbing frequency), the score is nice, the kind of thing you could play for your mother - as long as you skip the second-act sex romp numbers (one of which is called, unfortunately, "Arielle's Areolas"). Christian has a charmingly geeky opening number in the frantic "Juliana" and shares a roundabout getting-to-know-you duet with Juliana in "Something I Just Like About You." Coker-Jones gets a searing, searching moment in "If You Were Mine"; Jake and Christian get a moderately masculine man-up duet with "Guys Like Me"; and Juliana's starmaking spot, "Falling," is almost good enough to convince you the character could actually make the big time with it.

Stephen Brackett's direction is full of a lot of rock-concert stand-and-sing moments, but surges just as much as Matt Hinkley's high-octane band; and Danny Mefford has provided some fitfully funny choreography, particularly for the rubber-legged Weisberg in "Juliana." But the strangest strokes of genius here are the puppets. They count largely celebrity figures like Robert Smith and Iggy Pop - Susan Sontag is referred to, but never seen - and are at best low-rent versions of the kind that Avenue Q popularized, but they're sharp caricatures of vivid personalities that provide F#@king Up Everything with a much-needed extra dash of originality. Like the show they're in, they bridge the gap between youth appeal and adult cynicism, entertaining without coming to any potentially divisive conclusions that might disrupt the generically good time Davis and Forman go after - and largely achieve.

F#@king Up Everything
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival

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