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Regional Reviews: Boston

Hot Star, Nebraska

Also see Suzanne's recent review of Nixon's Nixon

It seems like the perfect Jack-and-Diane American romance —Tom is the high school track star of Hot Star, Nebraska, and Melanie is the area preteen beauty queen. Only now, it's five years on. Melanie and Tom, long out of high school, are living a stagnant life above Mel's mother's garage and their lives (he remains a runner; she fronts a rock band called Melanie and the Bitch Slaps) are only an obstacle stopping their escape from Hot Star.

It is this gloomy picture that opens SpeakEasy Stage's production of Hot Star, Nebraska, the company's first world premiere musical. Entirely the work of 23-year-old Paul Grellong, who began and workshopped the show while a student at Brown, Hot Star combines an intelligent book and a driving rock score with strong staging and a terrific cast to create not only a galvanizing evening of theatre, but also a striking debut for a remarkable new writer.

Aside from a pair of flashbacks to happier days, Hot Star, Nebraska takes place fully on one fateful October 3rd. Tom (Ben Steinfeld, who bears a certain resemblance to Saturday Night Live's Jimmy Fallon) and Melanie (Miriam Silverman, pictured at right) have plans to take a vacation and some time off from Hot Star. The idea is to leave that evening, but when an invitation to one final local beauty pageant (combined with revival meeting) arrives, Mel asks Tom to wait just overnight. That way, they can leave in the morning, after Melanie wins the pageant (of course she'll win the pageant) and, with it, the $20,000 prize.

A fight between the lovers ensues, and Melanie begins preparing for the pageant. As Tom attempts to win Melanie back with the help of lovestruck teenager Scotty (Jeff Harris), and Mel tries to assure a first place finish through an advance man for Chuck Norris (Greg DeCandia), who may or may not be coming to host the pageant, the evening approaches, as does a thug (Eric Waldo) coming to collect money from Tom. At the same time, Melanie's nerdy younger sister, Margo (Katie Pickett), begins to allow her twin obsessions —Tom and going to Dartmouth —to take control of her. Never mind that she has what everyone else wants, which is to say several thousand dollars saved and locked away for tuition. Best laid plans go awry, as they tend to, and at the end of the day, nobody's quite the same as they were when they woke up.

SpeakEasy's space (a three-quarters thrust that goes back rather deeply) is ideally used by director Michael Baron. Baron, who, like performers Steinfeld and Silverman, has been involved with Hot Star since its college beginnings, has set the piece on a mostly skeletal set (designed by Lee Savage) —the only permanent set pieces are a chair and table downstage left that represent Tom and Melanie's apartment and a pay phone upstage right. (This phone and one in the apartment area turn into microphones for one amusing duet between the warring lovers.) The entire space (including the staircases up to the seats) is utilized, allowing for split-second changes of location and scene. The three-man band is on stage and brought into the action as well —in addition to being the actual band for the show, they also play the Bitch Slaps.

The young cast is ably led by the strong work of Steinfeld and Silverman, who convey youthful exuberance in its prime and youthful exuberance gone to pot with equal aplomb, not to mention that they are both great singers as well (and, in Steinfeld's case, not half bad with a guitar). Waldo is terrifically evil as the thug, Kofode; he's even better as a dimwitted Christian pop singer named Jesse H. Chris III (think about it) who rose from humble Hot Star beginnings to popularity and has come back to host the pageant. Julie Jirousek does a fine job with the unfortunately underwritten role of Melanie and Margo's mother, a vivacious, oversexed alcoholic with disguised faded dreams. DeCandia is perhaps a little too smarmy as the nameless advance man, but that's a minor quibble. Special mention, however, must be made for Katie Pickett. She is outright stunning as Margo, making all of her time on stage count for all that it's worth and then some. In her hands and voice, the word "galvanizing" becomes a gleefully scathing condemnation of the nowhere town that she's stuck in. Her diminutive frame belies her powerhouse singing; in her few moments in the musical spotlight (a solo called "Green Hearts" and its reprise, and a section of the first act finale), Pickett's vocals explode like a river flooding over a dam, extraordinary and exciting to witness. Those vocals would mean nothing if they weren't supported by songs worthy of them. Luckily, Grellong has supplied a score deserving of its singers.

His music is heavily influenced by modern rock, with brief dips into both rap ("I Can Use That," a witty duet for Melanie and the advance man) and a more musical theatre-based style (an attractive love duet entitled "The Keys To Your Heart"). His lyrics are solid and by turns funny and dramatic, not to mention laden with pop culture references (one song references Jerry Maguire, and another is all about Phylicia Rashad). The peaks are the final songs in each act —the full cast "If I Ever Manage," which ends act one, sports a sublimely catchy melody and terrific lyrics, and "Helpless," which is near the end of the show, is a beautiful, heartbreaking ballad. Jirousek's one song, "No One Ever Notices," is also commendable, a striking song of misguided maternal love. This isn't to give the rest of the score short shrift —everything in it is great, and one wishes for a cast recording.

Hot Star, Nebraska is not perfect. Some sections could use some rewriting or expanding (notably the part of the mother and some background on how Tom became involved with the thugs in the first place); the beginning is weak (there's no real setup, and the audience is thrown somewhat into the middle of things), as is the transition into the final scene, although to say anything about that would ruin the ending. No, it's not perfect, but it's well on its way.

The SpeakEasy Stage production of Hot Star, Nebraska continues at Boston Center for the Arts through March 30. Performances Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 5:00pm and 8:30pm, Sundays at 7:00pm. For ticket information call 617-426-ARTS (2787).

-- Seth Christenfeld

See the current theatre schedule for the Boston area.

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