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With Glee

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zach Bandler, Dan Lawler, Max Spitulnik, Christopher Davis Carlisle, and Jason Edward Cook.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Prospect Theater Company's production of John Gregor's glimmering musical With Glee, playing at the Kirk Theatre through August 1, may only be about adolescent boys struggling through a year at a tony Maine boarding school, but it imparts some crucial lessons you can't get in most classrooms. A small sampling:

1. Some of (if not most of) the best musicals—and almost all of the best original scores—in New York theatre are not found in major Broadway or Off-Broadway venues.

2. NYU's musical theatre writing program needs to keep teaching its students whatever it taught Gregor when he passed through it.

3. The New York Musical Theatre Festival is one of the best (and earliest) ways to see what shows everyone will be talking about a year or two down the road.

4. If you don't see these shows at NYMF, you're not necessarily seeing them at their best.

It's a cinch to understand why this show caught the eyes of NYMF judges, who put it in the 2007 Festival, and why Prospect and director Igor Goldin have picked it up now. This thoroughly winning story about a quintet of young men from disparate backgrounds who bond over one tumultuous school year is one of the cleanest, clearest, and most innately honest musicals New York has seen in a while.

Gregor's book may be light on plot, but it bursts with effect, whether revealing secret details about each boy's life, integrating (with alarming lucidity) a musical-within-the-musical about a German soldier and the English schoolchildren he encounters, or delivering one of the most shocking coups de théâtre outside of David Cromer's Our Town merely by having one character walk onstage. You understand not just who these people are, but why and how they are—and where they're going (or not), thanks to seeds planted long before we ever met them. It's an easy-on-the-eyes-and-ears musical with no easy answers.

As for the score, it's as sumptuous as they come in today's light musical comedies. The plodding accompaniment of the opening number "Bad Kid's School" carries within it all the exhaustion, resentment, and amplified punishment implicit in "the first day back." "Gaul Was Divided Into Three Parts" is a stunning, swirling montage chronicling the boys' first day of class, from Latin through science to football practice. "We're Going to Worcester" is an addictive road-trip song that sounds exactly like the bumpy road the kids' car and life are traveling. There's more than a hint of toe-tapping Gilbert and Sullivan in "If You Want to Be a Vanderberg," which both embraces and mocks high-society platitudes. And "Normal," which the boys sing as part of group therapy, is an insinuating and affecting showstopper, delightfully demonstrating (with kicklines and solo spots) how much uniqueness can be found in the seemingly ordinary.

At NYMF, the entire show turned on that number, as if it wanted to prove that "old-fashioned" showmanship hadn't gone out of style. And in that cramped, setless, overheated, and underrehearsed environment, the evening succeeded, summoning a haze of pure magic from start to finish. But even though Goldin's production is bigger and slicker, complete with a handsome two-level mahogany-tinged set from designer Jen Price Fick, it's somehow lost the essential quality the show needs to soar: innocence. Without it, this wonderful little musical seems a little weird and a lot discomforting.

Christopher Davis Carlisle (playing fireworks-loving troublemaker Nathaniel), Zach Bandler (as the super-rich Scott), and Max Spitulnik (as car stealer Sam) are all confident, physically sturdy, and close to six feet in height, which makes some of the playful moments come across as creepy. The finale, for example, "Co-ed Dorms," in which the guys all dream of seeing girls in their underwear (and less), loses a lot of its charm when the actors all look old enough to have done that much (and more) themselves. Kip has been sent to school to get "straightened" out, but his sexual confusion is more pathetic than endearing as enacted by the slightly-over-the-top Jason Edward Cook. At least Greg Horton and Erin Jerozal are excellent in their quick-change roles as the various adults in the boys' lives.

Dan Lawler is the only actor repeating his role from NYMF. He was a revelation in 2007 as Clay—the youngest boy, who invests all his hopes and emotions in the model ship he's constantly building—but now reads as too seasoned to be so naïve. Nathaniel may be the de facto narrator, but it's in Clay's troubled home life, escape from it, and journey to find himself that the show most consistently finds its heart. You simply must believe that this is a boy who's finally being given the opportunity to grow up. But when it seems like he and everyone else got there long ago, With Glee loses much of the appeal with which Gregor filled it.

Nevertheless, Prospect should be applauded for taking on this show, just as it did another top-tier NYMF offering, The Blue Flower, in 2008, which perfectly fit the company's adventuresome aesthetic. With Glee, however, demands a different approach it doesn't satisfactorily receive here. Prospect, Goldin, and the actors have taken Gregor's heartfelt, intelligent show and made it too smart for its own good.

With Glee
Through August 1
Kirk Theater, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street at 9th Avenue
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticket Central

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