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Sound Advice Reviews

Musicals About Pressured, Problem-Plagued Teens ...
Heavy and Light
Reviews by Rob Lester

That dear Evan Hansen isn't the only teenager with enough anxiety and regrets who is surrounded by song in a musical. While his story just won the Grammy Award for best cast recording of 2017, here are a couple of other cast albums also released last year that involve their own high schoolers with worries. Both are appearing from Broadway Records a couple of years after their stage debuts, both played Off-Broadway and elsewhere, but one is as earnest and dark as the other (targeted at kids even younger than its protagonists) is silly and zippy. Let's consider the considerably serious Kid Victory and the peppy, poppy froth of Mad Libs Live!


Broadway Records

Eleven months ago, a new musical about a teen who'd been missing for eleven months started a run Off-Broadway (it had premiered two Februarys earlier at the Signature Theatre in Virginia). Kid Victory is a collaboration between Greg Pierce (whose new play, Cardinal, opens this week at Second Stage) and veteran John Kander, whose scores with longtime lyricist partner, the late Fred Ebb, are part of the fabric of New York. Feinstein's/54 Below just did a concert version of their last score, Curtains, and will soon do the same for The Happy Time; Chicago's second life has become the longest-running revival ever, still going strong. Following the intriguing The Landing, this is the second score by Kander and Pierce (whose uncle, David Hyde Pierce, starred in both that and Curtains). As with that first effort, the writers came up with an original story together. And what a story it is: Unraveling a bit at a time, we learn the events and feelings that caused the 17-year-old Kansas high-schooler Luke to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as he returns home, dazed, damaged, and disoriented after being kidnapped and held captive for a year.

Some members of the nine-person cast also serve as a chorus to thicken the voicings, and a church hymn, "Lord Carry Me Home," is lush if lyrically anemic in its intended repetition of its titular plea. The orchestra is made up of ten players, with cello and French horn notably adding musical pathos and depth. The admirable playing and colorizing of sounds is just right, never intrusive or showy, but rather a blanket of sound. One of two keyboardists, Jesse Kissel, conducts and David Loud is music supervisor, with the reliable and prolific Michael Croiter producing the album.

Throughout the recording, coming through potently are a drama-rich atmosphere and clear-cut characters, the sense of the boy being broken and haunted and the determination of well-meaning people to simplistically put band-aids on gaping wounds. While the tale centers around Luke, he is the only character who does not sing at all. However, enough of his reaction dialogue is between other people's singing sections in numbers for us to get a sense of his personality on the recording. In this role, actor Brandon Flynn does an impressive job of engendering immediate sympathy with believable characterization and delicately shaded line readings, avoiding the trap of sounding too much like a frightened pup or energy-drained wet rag.

Sections told in flashback when he first meets the man who will capture him allow us to have the cheerier, if naive, side. Other actors slip smoothly back and forth between their own sung and spoken lines to make the interaction with Flynn feel fully interactive and natural, songs often being so conversational that the fact that our hero is not singing feels right. As we hope for him to be more articulate and at ease, his voice and words in their projected effortfulness underscore the fact that he can't soar into song. To theatrical effect, in contrast to the musicality surrounding him, it makes Luke seem all the more weighed down and immobilized.

Luke's uber-religious, crisp, desperately cheery mom is played by Kander and Ebb favorite Karen Ziemba (Steel Pier, Curtains and And the World Goes 'Round). And, as usual, she's terrific in her singing and personality-plus kind of presence. In this assignment, it means breezing through denial of how traumatized her son still is, determined in her steely way to be chipper. You can imagine her holding the sun at gunpoint, ordering it to shine for her son. But she's the one who is ever-sunny, even through gritted teeth. And when the burdened mother relaxes into a more guard-is-let-down moment, her wistful solo "There Was a Boy," recalling how Luke was in happier times, is warm and wondrous.

The woman who most successfully relates to Luke is his new employer, played by Dee Roscioli in an appealing performance as she commiserates and communicates shared sensibilities about isolation and being different ("People Like Us," "The Lawn") and parent/child relationships (the brief "Dear Mara," a sung letter). The other female characters/cast members provide effective contrast: Ann Arvia as the brash but well-meaning church lady/self-styled counselor force-feeding her brand of therapy with "You Are the Marble"; and Laura Darrell as Luke's supportive "kind of girlfriend" with a sweetly sung "I'd Rather Wait"—it's an endearing moment.

Perhaps we old-school musical theatre addicts will approach later John Kander scores with a longing for the spiffy, spunky tunes he wrote with Fred Ebb that were bright, brash, bouncy and infectious. Old expectations may die hard, but even die-hard fans must admit that Kander's melodies here are gracious and glorious in more low-key artful ways that invite and reward repeat plays. As Luke's father, Daniel Jenkins gets the final words, delivered with aplomb—and a restrained but truly lovely melodic line—in his one solo, "Where We Are." Joel Blum is attractively croony as a detective in "Not Quite True," a song that enticingly seems poised to burst into blissful vaudeville, but doesn't quite make the splash happen. There is deft melodic invention throughout, even in modest-scaled musical moments and in songs "interrupted" frequently by dialogue, like Luke's conversations online and in person with his victimizer Michael (a remarkable performance by Jeffry Denman, mixing personality components like a Jekyll and Hyde to seductively concoct an ultimately poisonous brew). And this is hardly a feel-good musical, but there are shades of the once-upon-a-splashier time: as a newly-met peer near the end of the story, a light in the dark tunnel comes via talented, tapping cast member Blake Zolfo who shines beacon-like with score highlight "What's the Point?" Slyly sarcastic yet simultaneously life-affirming, this song-and-dance delight is what they used call a "take-home tune": the one you sing on the way home from the theatre, that sticks in your head, and makes you anticipate the cast album. In this case, it was a long wait for a show that had a short run. But, hooray, it's here and well worth the emotion-stirring listen.


Broadway Records

Maybe you had to be there. Watching actors, in real time, gamely and unblinkingly sing words inserted into their memorized lyrics at the moment they pull adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs from a hat (actually, a plastic bucket) is probably a bit of fun. That's the gimmick of Mad Libs Live!: Before the show begins, audience members write words of their choice on slips of paper and the papers are placed in the pails (one container for each part of speech) and, in some songs, at specific moments, they are incorporated, plopped into place within lyrics that are otherwise pre-written. Yes, indeed, it is literally the old party game of Mad Libs where such inserts can be amusing with semi-unintentional randomness because you don't know when an offered word will make a sentence ludicrous or invoke blushing or guffaws. Put in "pickles" for a plural noun and you could get anything from "Goldilocks and the Three Pickles" to "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of pickles," but certain words are better bets to be likely laughter-triggers.

The conceit of working the game into the plot is that the quartet of teen characters are in a live on-stage contest where they were supposed to write their own musical material, but the songs were not quite finished and they solicit words—any words—to instantly fill in the blanks when those blanks come up. Some items in the score are plot songs, some done in flashbacks, so no inserts there.

The show is aimed at kids and families, so the energy is cranked up, the musical genre feel is bopping-along bubblegum with a high sugar content, often almost mind-numbingly frenzied and fluffy. A line in the booklet assures us that the inserted words are ones really suggested by audiences at the live shows, but one has to wonder how the choices among them were made and if these were really the best and most fortuitous of the options or random samples or simply chosen to be accurately representing typical contributions. For me, without the advantage of seeing the actors in the "we don't know what word we're about to stick in this sentence" mode, reacting with a smile or a shrug too often makes "Lame" the name of the game when the game of Mad Libs intrudes with its random mismatches that wear thin and can become more clunky than clever, dopey without being amusing after the raison d'etre is commonplace.

The lyric booklet's pages show blank lines where the audience-provided words were used, so one can follow along and listen for them. Of course, a word at the end of a line will kill the rhyme scheme and the wrong number of syllables will prevent perfect scanning—and that is either disappointing or makes it sound more amusingly out of place. You wait for the word "play" to rhyme with the "L.A.," but the long "A" vowel sound is, as the odds would suggest, unlikely to be in the pail, so in "How to Be Famous" we get "I'll top the charts from New York to L.A./ Be the lead in a Broadway donut. One number seeks its title from an adjective followed by a noun: "You're My _____ ______" and the structure for that one, unlike the usual one-usage only policy mostly employed, is to use it over and over. Even if you thought the meaningless and unmatching resulting multi-invoked phrase was delightfully dopey the first five times, I think most listeners will eventually tire of hearing a teenage girl sing lovingly to her beloved, referred to as "my feisty mustache."

Other songs are burdened or buoyed with the audience's choices, from "shimmy" to "fart," and mentions of going to Chinatown to eat—wait for it—space aliens. Some may find the juxtaposed absurdities hilarious, perhaps, and humor-wise you may be more likely to think they make the grade if you are in second grade or generally think anything odd is intrinsically hilarious. For me, the Mad Libs madness that makes this endeavor unique is, in a word, meh.

Fortunately, the recording has other things going for it. Jeff Thomson's music is kicky and caffeinated and some of the pre-set actual lyrics by Robin Rothstein (who also wrote the book) have some real-deal appeal. And, to their credit, they do use teen speak fairly well ("O.M.G.! I can't wait! Mad Libs Live! Will be great") with the four characters on the teen team capturing some of the generational self-conscious worry ("I'm gonna sound like a jerk") or bullying/blaming ("You act like a diva, but don't have a clue ...The 'Disaster!' is you"). Many lines, alas, are repeated too many times—to the point of ad nauseum right off the bat in the opener/closer with its three-word title phrase, "Doing It Right!" relentlessly chanted over and over and over ("Doing it right, doing it right, doing it right—right now!") and one actually longs for a Mad Libs word substitution as respite.

My favorite line, a needle in this more ordinary haystack, is in "Friends 4Ever" wherein a kid laments being rejected for "the way I am" which rhymes with being "treated like E-mail spam." If only such turns of phrase were more plentiful or the agendas of championing self-awareness and cooperation were more pronounced, telling off the blamers more dramatic, or the characters allowed to reach the evident potential of nerdiness or sweetness as in a show about kids in a contest which might be a role model here: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

But it's hard to be pulled in to these adult actors playing teenagers as believable, fleshed-out characters, especially with the pumped-up wannabe "Glee"-like speedy, spunky treadmill of run-of-the-mill pastiche and lyrics that cry out for more specificity. Maybe it's just a case of a score really aimed at almost-adolescents without enough to grab adult ears and minds, and never the tween shall meet? Listening again and trying to think like someone who has more of a taste for cotton candy and leans more towards the ilk of Britney Spears pre-fab danceable tracks and sass, I can see how there might be an attraction for some.

Undeniably, though subtlety is not the main agenda, the four main performers—Melody Madarasz, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Max Joseph, and Jeanfranco Cardentey—seem to be giving it their all. They enthuse, fume, strut, and cheerlead for themselves and each other and their mantras—with determined pluck, marching their way through the roles of (respectively) the unprepared songwriter, the confident and conceited girl, the misfit, and the jock. Zachary Noah Piser and Santina Umbach add voices as ensemble members and Mike Woods voices the spoken character of the Blankville Central High School contest host, named Ryan Seablank (as in "fill in the blank with a Mad Libs word from the audience, or as in TV's Ryan Seacrest; the character was once named Mel Blank after the veteran cartoon/voiceover actor).

Jeff Daye did the musical tracks and Camille Johnson is credited as music director with Aaron Jodoin the music supervisor who is billed as doing additional arrangements.

Being silly can be a good thing; if only Mad Libs Live! were more madcap in a more universal way. But different kinds of audiences, even on a recording, will find different pleasures. As in the game that surprisingly inspired a musical, you'll choose your own adjective.

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