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at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 23, 2016

Passionate feelings alone do not guarantee great theatre—things like care, artistry, and plot play critical roles, too, as they give recognizable, ingestible life to the inchoate ramblings of our minds and hearts. In writing Normativity, an entry at the Pearl Theatre as part of this year's New York Musical Festival, Jaime Jarrett has fully embraced feelings but ignored almost everything else, turning what's clearly intended as a sincere plaint into a jumbled mess.

The story derives almost directly from an experience Jarrett documents in a program note: discovering first-hand in college how gay figures in contemporary literature typically only find fulfillment and absolution through death, which means unhappy endings are the rule rather than the exception. This idea is discussed endlessly in Normativity's songs, as a handful of LGBTQ-identifying high-schoolers who are longing to find themselves and hope, rather than shame, in the words of others.

One such author-perpetrator, who's already celebrated for his Young Adult writings, is Charlie Jacobs (Mitchell Winter), now immersed in writing a novel about a lesbian girl named Emily whose relationship with her friend Danielle ends (predictably) in tragedy. But when Charlie writes the pill-popping ending, an outraged Emily comes to life (as performed by Madeline Wolf) to set him and the book straight. When Charlie takes Emily to the local high school to prove he's on target, she meets Taylor (Izzy Castaldi), with whom she joins forces to right Charlie's literary wrongs—and, of course, things between them don't end there, but spin off into new directions both sobering and exultant.

Jarrett has composed some attractive light-pop melodies for the song stack, the dreamlike direction (by Mia Walker) and angular choreography (by Adin Walker) are visually interesting and diverse, and the cast (which also includes Geena Quintos, Christopher Livingston, Soph Menas, and Aneesh Sheth) is full of intriguing comic personalities and excellent singers who capably portray a variety of people across the sexuality spectrum and remind us, with very little effort, that we're all in this together. Though I was particularly impressed by Wolf's genial forcefulness, everyone is good.

None of this is enough, however. Like the trans musical Southern Comfort, which completed a run at The Public Theater in March, this work is absorbed with itself and its issues at the exclusion of all else, and that creates an off-putting evening that is all bombast and no entertainment. With their Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home, which would appear to be a obvious model for this one, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron wrapped their pleas for love and tolerance inside a genuinely theatrical package that offered more than just myopic moralizing, something Jarrett has seemingly not even attempted.

There's a lack of technical precision, too, in the plethora of lyrics that rhyme and scan poorly (when they do at all), but the bigger problem is the book. Yes, it's difficult to accept pleas for tolerance and inclusion when the two main straight characters are demonized nonstop (Charlie is nice, but a dolt, and his agent-fiancée is a fire-breathing harpy who craves Emily's death in the book the way a person lost in the desert might a gallon of ice water). And because the other kids are glorified chorus parts who aren't precisely defined as people, and no parents or teachers appear, there's practically no context even for the characters who are treated more respectfully. Worse: Are these events really that much better than those that inspired Jarrett to write this musical? Rather than demonstrating how adolescents outside traditional norms can lead emotionally and sexually fulfilling lives in the real world, Jarrett strongly suggests that only within the boundaries of fantasy can they find genuine happiness.

That's undoubtedly not what Jarrett was going for, but messages have a way of getting off-track when there's nothing else holding them in place; it's all too easy for the writer's crusade to overwhelm the writer's ability to communicate that struggle within the chosen medium. Giving voice to the underrepresented is a worthy goal, but what they say and how they say it must be at least as important if the result isn't to be as flat and unsatisfying the well-meaning Normativity too often is.

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