Monday, July 16, 2012

NYMF 2012: A Few Notes on TROUBLE


This past weekend, Mike and I met up for our second foray with the New York Musical Theatre Festival and it was just as thrilling to be there at the birth of two new shows as it was last year.  The objective of the festival is to present new musicals - some with readings, others with fully staged productions.  The latter was the case with both musicals we saw; today, I'll discuss my thoughts about Trouble, a new rock musical by Michael Alvarez and Ella Grace.

Before I go on, though, I want to stress that this is not intended to be a full review.  Rather, I'll talk about the book, music and lyrics, as well as how it works in performance.  I will only discuss technical elements that impact specific aspects of the show.  I assume that the producers gathered the very best talent, and maximized both limited budgets and limited rehearsal time.

Grade: The potential is there, but it is as messy as a teenager’s room, and cleaning it up just might be more trouble than it is worth.

What Works: The Book: (Scenario A) What does it mean when the most original angle of a show about teenage sexual awakening deals with the lust (and eventual coupling) between a step-brother and step-sister?  Yes, that is a part of this hodge-podge of teen angst and hormones run amuck.  (Scenario B) With all of the attention being paid to gay teens being bullied and social media aiding in the outing of said teens, you’d think a current musical that sort of deals with it would be more on top of it, playing out the story as promised instead of a last-minute “everyone’s cool with it” cop-out.  (Scenario C) Two kids fresh from some sort of clinic experience have fallen in love, in a sticky co-dependent, but still want to fuck kind of way are also a part of this story, and are, like the other elements I’ve described, potentially original and full of meaning. (The fourth couple is your typical horny boy with no direction and tough girl with a soft inside dying to come out, so done to death there is no way I can say it helps the show.  Actually, it just takes time away from the other three…)  That these three story lines are in the book by Michael Alvarez shows me that Trouble could work, be relevant AND break new ground.  But they are either treated like a running joke (Scenario A), given short shrift at the end so as to make what is at stake another joke (Scenario B), or thrown in like “we need a plot twist here” and then treat the situation like a poor man’s After School Special.  All 3 plots could and do work on some level, since I ended up caring about what happened to the kids involved, but it took more work on my part than the piece warranted.

What Works: The Score: Since the score is written by an actual rock musician, with some actual street cred (Ella Grace, part of the UK band Hitchcock Blonde) I guess I expected more bang for my buck when her show is subtitled “A New Rock Musical.”  It is pretty clear that she’s trying to reach for the Jonathan Larson vibe mixed with Spring Awakening poetry.  Instead, as Mike pointed out to me – and he is right, most of the songs are so lyrically generic that any character in the show could sing any of the songs at any time.  And they all sound woefully similar, with only 4 numbers that, one day later, I can even recall, and don’t ask me to hum them.  “I Stalk You a Little Bit,” sung by the gay kid who’s in love with a popular athlete while sniffing the guy’s gym shorts and, ultimately, his jock strap, is clever enough and gets laughs because, well, it is funny to watch, even if it is too realistic and kinda gross at the same time.  The end of act one, according to the program is called “Spring Flowers,” but is noteworthy because, though I can’t quote you a single lyric, I remember thinking that the words and the music fit the moment.  That moment was watching “high school kids” slowly undress themselves and each other and begin to copulate.  The catchiest number of all opens Act Two (“Can I Sit This One Out?”) which deals with the aftermath of Act One’s, uh, climax.  And the one ballad that stuck out even a little bit to me was as much because the actress singing it has one hell of a belt was “Best Birthday Ever.”  It loses some points, however, for being sung at her mother’s grave.  "Maudlin" and "excessive" defined.

What Works: The Staging and Cast: By far the best element of this production is the incorporation of modern dance by the ensemble, who acts both as real life high school kids and at one point the psychological version of the main cast.  Had that been explored more, the entire piece would have a point, a point of view and something unique to bring to the table.  Kudos to Jennifer Webber, choreographer, for the best staged moments of the entire two plus hours.  I hope producers of So You Think You Can Dance see your work and offer you a job.

The youthful cast does what it can with what they’ve been given, and without much help from the director. (Though as “professional actors,” many part of Actors Equity, shame on all of you for not knowing the lines or the scenes well enough to work through them!)  Standout performers include the funny Abbe Tanenbaum, the sweet, funny and sincere Daniel Quadrino, the sexy-ish “jock” (and apparently an excellent kisser) Matthew J. Riordan, and belter Sara Kapner.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the others – Katie Mack, Davi Santos, Sara Kapner and Justin Stein were fine.

The Trouble with Trouble: More than half of my issue with this production has to do with what might be a misinterpretation of what the New York Music Theater Festival defines as a “full production,” which Trouble allegedly has been given.  I thought that meant that it was fully, competently staged, rehearsed and ready for an audience.  I understand that time and budget dictates that production values will be simple.  But I have seen more competently produced staged readings.  It was very clear from start to finish that the very game cast rehearsed the hell out of the vocals and the dancing.  But the book and the direction were given much less consideration.  I have seen high school productions with more professionalism and finesse.  It says a lot that during every scene of act one (and a few in the much better second act) lines were clearly flubbed, forgotten altogether or simply thrown out for some self-indulgent ad-libbing.  I wish I were exaggerating, but you could tell by the actors’ faces when they got lost by the look of panic, followed by clear looks of relief when they finally managed to get to a cue line for a song. Then there were the not funny little mumblings by the cast changing “scenery” who felt compelled to let us know that the flimsy lawn chairs they brought on and off and on and off were as cheesy as they looked, but what can you do?  I won’t even discuss the on/off staging to center that was as boring to watch as it has to have been to act out.  Even Baby It’s You was more varied, which is saying a lot.  But I can forgive a lot given the circumstances of such a fast-paced festival if the show is really new and being given its first chance to fly.  As a first draft this is decent.  But Trouble, apparently has been staged everywhere, and by the same people!  However, the fact that the director, Matthew Alvarez, appears to have been absent during rehearsals for its New York debut, the messiness of the book scenes is even worse considering HE wrote it, too!  If this is to have a future, Mr. Alvarez needs to step down as its director, and find a collaborator to flesh out the book, the characters and most of all the tone.  As it is, it is all over the place – important topics with scenes of high camp, melodrama and very few moments of believability.  Just because the play is about adolescents, doesn’t mean it has to act like one.  That is a disservice to the cast, the audience and mostly to teenagers everywhere.

Trouble plays its final performance at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Wednesday, July 18 at 5 PM.

(Photos by Joshua Priestly)

For "Notes" on another NYMF 2012 show, Stuck, click HERE.

@jkstheatrescene (Twitter); (email), or Comment Below (Blogger)

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