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The Underclassman

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Jessica Grové and Matt Dengler
Photo by Richard Termine

The quintessential Peter Mills–Cara Reichel musical of the last decade, even for people who didn't see it, was unquestionably The Pursuit of Persephone. Though produced Off-Off-Broadway by the then-in-ascent Prospect Theater Company in 2005, it attained recognition and word of mouth comparable to that of many of the hottest Broadway hits, because it heralded the official arrival of Mills as a gifted songsmith of the old-fashioned school who was nonetheless writing newfangled entertainments completely free of dust. There were quibbles to be made with this musical about F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton before Zelda Sayre, but when you were awash in those songs and Reichel's brilliant staging, nothing else mattered.

So it's a pleasure to report that those unlucky enough to have missed that opportunity don't just have another to see what the fuss was about—now they can have an even better time. Prospect's updated version of the musical, which just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street under the title The Underclassman, has been significantly tightened up, fleshed out, and otherwise improved what was already a darn impressive effort. That this production also sparkles like a diamond, once again under Reichel's fleet direction and with a cast led by Matt Dengler as Fitzgerald and Persephone alumna Jessica Grové as love interest Ginevra King, only makes a great thing better.

Try, for example, to resist the surging allure of the sly, almost demonic "Black Ball," for the decision-makers of the prestigious Cottage Club when Scott and friend-roommate John Peale Bishop (aka JP, played by Marrick Smith) apply for membership there. Or the sexy lilt underlying "Improvising," in which Scott and Ginevra play footsie up and down the treble scale. Or the playful anti-romantic banter between Edmund Wilson (Billy Hepfinger) and Marie Hersey (Piper Goodeve) in "Let's Don't." Or "If Only," the most accomplished of the (many) amusing drag numbers from the members of the Triangle Club: an infectious quodlibet that views a now-and-future proposal from both perspectives at once. Or... heck, pretty much anything else in the score.


The Cast
Photo by Richard Termine

Mills, justly acclaimed for his work on other Prospect outings such as Illyria, The Taxi Cabaret, and Iron Curtain, and also the lyricist on the Broadway-bound Honeymooners musical, effortlessly summons the spirits of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, among others, in capturing the lyrical atmosphere of the World War I Midwest and Northeast. And Reichel, who also wrote the book with Mills adapted from Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, keeps her stage pictures nimble and constantly shifting, alternating in style from a lush oil painting to a firm daguerreotype to a suggestive picture postcard, all without missing a step. Deep one-on-ones between the men melt into clingy parties, Triangle Club shows transform into the warfront, and so on, letting you see how every aspect of the place informed who these people were and the art that resulted.

So winning is everything about the presentation, from Ann Bartek's simple but effective sets and Sidney Shannon's biting and beautiful costume plot to Christine O'Grady's spirited choreography and Daniel Feyer's swank conducting of the eight-piece band, that it seems a shame to dwell on the one thing that brings a lull to the proceedings: that book. It's perhaps structured as too-light comedy, with more attention than may be necessary paid to Scott and his classmates and less to the central romance. That aspect of the story, by far the most compelling, unfolds in tableaux, nearly fits and starts, as other events beyond Ginevra's reach shape Scott the young man and Scott the legend-to-be.

Focus on this has only improved since the original production, when an older Fitzgerald and numerous other characters played too much around the edges of the action. But Mills and Reichel could zoom in even more on Scott and Ginevra and trim down lengthy scenes that establish the populace but don't do much more or are too roundabout getting to their point. (A long montage at the start of Act II, "A Trip to the Seaside," or some of the intrigue surrounding Scott's studies would seem decent places to start.) Genial as all these folks are, it's not as clear as it should be why they occupy our attention for as long as they do, other than to fill out the margins of the career that yet lies ahead for Scott. That may be important to history, but it's not always vital theatre.

Superb, energetic performances, particularly from a bewitchingly coy Grové and a deceptively adventurous Dengler, both of whom sing like a dream alone or especially together, give yet another boost to this already-skyrocketing show. But, not to fault anyone onstage, it's still the songs that most sell the evening: How can you not love lyrics like "There's a delicate apparatus / Governing social status / And that is what I have endeavored to learn, / Knowing this is the year they stamp us / Royalty of the campus / Or nobody of concern"? No one working today does this as well as Mills. No one.

If there's one last criticism one could make of this must-see musical, it's the new title. The Underclassman suggests an affair that's earthbound, academic, and staid, not at all in accordance with the effervescent final product. What's needed is something that hints at a grand, even legendary, romp infused with just a hint of mystery and impossibility—not unlike the Fitzgerald-King pairing that was never quite to be, but that bursts with joy and promise on the stage with this outstanding treatment. Maybe The Pursuit of Persephone is still available?


The Underclassman
Through November 23
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: theatermania.com


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