Beth Glover in Genesius
(© Shannan Denlinger)
Beth Glover in Genesius
(© Shannan Denlinger)
The beginnings of the Genesius Theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania would seem to have all of the ingredients for a charming musical. There's an indomitable heroine -- Jane Simmon Miller (Beth Glover), the woman who co-founds the group -- and a love affair between Jane and her significantly younger co-founder David (Danny Gardner). There are also financial and personal obstacles that the two need to overcome and a crew of young people who find inspiration in the productions that they work on. It's the all the stuff of classic musical theater and hints of Gypsy, Applause and even High School Musical can be found in the show. But rather than being a valentine to the theater in general, Genesius, performing at TADA! Theater, only feels like a pageant about the group's history or a belated memorial to Miller who passed away just four years after the theater was founded.

At the center of the musical is Glover's gloriously theatrical and enormously appealing Jane, and given the actress' work it's easy to understand why this woman would be so fondly remembered by the people whose lives she touched. Unfortunately, while Glover's magic with the role makes Jane's incandescence readily apparent, her performance is not enough to energize LJ Fecho's meandering and overwritten book, which often stalls as tangential stories come to the fore (a scene in which a just-pubescent director has cast four girls as Tinkerbell is unnecessary and slightly embarrassing). The same can be said of the show's cloying preteen narrator (Tyler Bell).

Additionally, Fecho has created a host of stereotypical characters beyond the show's principals. There's the lesbian techie (Melisa Klausner) who has an unrequited love for Jane, the young thug (Dane Reis) whose life is turned around by working with the group, and the fey community patriarch (Paul Carlin) who runs a rival theater. As for the kids who work on the shows, they're played appealingly by the ensemble, but despite some signature tics, the characters are rarely anything more than generalized teenager types.

Composer and lyricist Michael O'Flaherty -- who actually co-founded the theater with Jane -- has worked to create a contemporary sound for the show, but his music rarely has a voice of its own. Instead, the songs often sound like pale imitations of other songwriters, primarily Stephen Sondheim. There is one exception: the lush romantic ballad "No One Has Ever Heard My Song," that sounds as if it might have come from an operetta. As performed by Lauren Lukacek and Gardner, it nearly stops the show.

Director William Sanders has given the musical a sturdy, but unremarkable, staging. The production moves from scene to scene, dutifully cataloging each of Jane and David's triumphs and disappointments. Theoretically, theatergoers should root for these upstart underdogs, but Genesius never inspires audiences to cheer; even the group's first performance -- which should be a spine-tingling triumph -- underwhelms. It's unfortunate because there is a potentially compelling backstage musical to be found in the story of this little theater that could, did and still does.