Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Mad Ones
The musical begins and ends with Samantha sitting in her car, with every moment in between in the one-act, 95-minute show a flash back to the events that have happened in her life and that have gotten her to this point where she has to make a decision. Her best friend, Kelly, is a carefree spirit who tries to get Samantha to open her eyes to life and to not let society's rules map her future. Her boyfriend Adam is sweet and sincere, and her single mother Beverly is a statistician who tries her best to provide guidance to Samantha, but her constant concern for her daughter's safety finds her often reciting car crash statistics. I'm intentionally leaving out the one major plot element to avoid any spoilers, even though it's revealed in the first 15 minutes of the musical, which is the catalyst for Samantha's uncertainty in her life.
The title is an ode to the book "On the Road," in which Jack Kerouac spoke about the mad ones he preferred to spend time with–free spirits who are represented in the musical by Kelly, who constantly urges Samantha to let go and hit the road with her to places unknown.
While the score by by Kait Kerrigan (lyrics) and Bree Lowdermilk (music) is tuneful, many of the songs are very similar sounding and may work better as standalone pop-rock power ballads than for a character-driven intimate musical. Kerrigan's book is both quite simple while also being somewhat overwrought, with a few detours that don't truly go anywhere and some roadblocks that stop Samantha's journey. The ending is uneventful. There is also a repetitiveness in several scenes, which might make you you think they are included so we can see how Samantha has learned from her experiences and the events that have unfolded, yet she doesn't. These moments just seem like padding, which, when combined with the almost one-dimensional characters who are more a series of basic character traits than fully fleshed out individuals, make the plot and situations appear more remote and the emotional moments more distant. I know this show has gone through several workshops and productions over the years, including originally being titled The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, so it's possible there was once more to the show than in its current form.
Even though I have issues with the book and score, I can't say anything negative about the MCC cast, who are all exceptional and go the extra mile to breathe life into these fairly basic characters. Diana Stapley is wonderful as Samantha, the cautious, uncertain, and indecisive high school valedictorian, and Suzy Olson is a burst of energy as the bold, fearless, playful, and intense Kelly. Stapley and Olson create two realistic young women who appear to have been best friends for years. Reagan Ray is excellent as Samantha's smart but questioning and somewhat overbearing mother, who also shows touches of vulnerability, and Osvaldo Rodriguez is endearing as Adam, Samantha's simple boyfriend. All four have beautiful singing voices that shine and soar.
Darl Jones' direction provides as much clarity as he can, and his staging keeps the pacing moving along with great use of Douglas Clarke's minimal, vast, and abstract set design, which allows the scenes to unfold seamlessly. Clarke's set, when combined with Kyle Rivieccio's beautiful lighting, works well to evoke the feeling of being inside Samantha's memories as they flash in front of us. Moira Caswell's costumes are character perfect and the music direction by Darin Shyrock derives beautiful vocals from the cast and a rich, full sound from the five-piece orchestra.
While I had some major problems with the plot and score, those who have experienced loss or found themselves facing a crossroads, or have struggled to state what they want due to the pressure of those around them, may find moments that resonate in The Mad Ones. It may also connect to those who are closer to Samantha's age who see themselves reflected in the characters. It just didnt connect with me.
The Mad Ones runs through September 24, 2022, at the Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center, 1520 S Longmore, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-461-7172 or visit mesacc.edu/arts/events.
Director: Darl Jones