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The Mad Ones

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 16, 2017

Emma Hunton and Krystina Alabado
Photo by Richard Termine

There are assuredly many engrossing musicals about adolescent angst, from West Side Story to Spring Awakening to Dear Evan Hansen. Even the day-to-day lives of teenagers can be terribly dramatic, at least to them. Unfortunately, The Mad Ones, the unpretentious little musical that opened tonight at 59E59 Theaters, has almost no dramatic tension, with a thin plot that serves mostly as a frame for showcasing the songwriting team of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk.

The pair, whose best-known theatrical work is their family-friendly adaptation of Cynthia Rylant's children's book Henry and Mudge from 2006, have had some success with their recordings and concerts, and they have a large following on their YouTube channel. One of their songs from The Mad Ones, "Run Away With Me," has been performed by Aaron Tveit and Jeremy Jordan, among others. But if they hope to break through into the more competitive world of stage musicals with wide appeal for older teens and adults, The Mad Ones is unlikely to be their entrée. Not when the biggest issues are whether its protagonist, Sam (Krystina Alabado), will pass her driving test, sleep with her boyfriend, go to the ivy league college her feminist mother envisions for her, or flee without a road map, as her friend Kelly (Emma Hunton) urges her to do.

Conceptually, The Mad Ones draws its inspiration from a quote from Jack Kerouac's iconic beat generation novel On the Road: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved." Sam is not one of these mad ones. She is the slightly anxious overachieving valedictorian of her high school graduating class, who wishes she could be the kind of free-wheeling risk-taker depicted in the book, even if her mother (Leah Hocking) tells her, "On the Road is what happens when you glorify the patriarchy."

Much of the will-she-or-won't-she story is told in flashback, covering Sam's senior year, during which her friend Kelly was killed in an accident (not a spoiler, because Kelly herself announces it early on). Kelly remains an onstage presence, however, and she is there to encourage Sam to head off into the great unknown. We also meet Sam's laid-back boyfriend Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who seems to be pretty clueless but who turns out to offer the kind of support Sam needs. He's the one who most buys into her dream and urges her to "run away with me." In the end, whether she stays or leaves is not what is most important. The lesson to be learned here is that it is her future, and her decision as to how she wants to lead it.

With its simple message and the low-level production design (Adam Rigg's minimalist bleacher-bench set and David Lander's multi-colored lighting palette), what remains is the songs and the performances. With the latter, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk and their producer, the Prospect Theater Company, have been decidedly fortunate. The cast packs some serious Broadway creds, including America Psycho and American Idiot (Ms. Alabado); The Last Ship and Billy Elliot (Ms. Hocking); the revivals of Hair and On The Town (Mr. Johnson); and Spring Awakening and the Off Broadway revival of Rent (Ms. Hunton). Under Stephen Brackett's direction, and with the backing of a small orchestra of very talented musicians, the performers deliver on all the charm, energy, and humor they can muster.

With the exception of two of the numbers, however, the score itself is mostly unmemorable theater pop. Mr. Johnson does nicely with "Run Away With Me," whose title tells you all what you need to know of its content; and Ms. Hocking gets to cut loose with the rousing "I Know My Girl," in which she schemes to find out what's eating at her daughter. Each of these songs is driven by the characters and the situations, and each is musically and lyrically interesting. The rest of the score, unfortunately, is merely pleasant and serviceable. If Kerrigan and Lowdermilk want to ramp things up, they would do well to listen to the kinds of heart-thumping musicals the cast members have on their bios, and develop a plot with some dramatic edginess to it.

The Mad Ones
Through December 17
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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