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Burn All Night

Dancing till the world ends at the American Repertory Theater.

Krystina Alabado (Holly), Lincoln Clauss (Bobby), Perry Sherman (Will), and Kenneth Clark (Zak) in Burn All Night, directed by Jenny Koons, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

This world premiere of the immersive synth-pop musical Burn All Night pulsates with the earnest desire for its audience to check their troubles at the door. For although the story of Burn All Night is a commonplace "young boy comes to the big city" tale, it also takes place on the eve of an unknown global catastrophe, raising the stakes as a group of millennials hurtle toward the unknown. Think of it as a more meager, apocalyptic version of Boy George's Taboo. While there's plenty of bait here for angsty teens, the whole affair is relatively unsubstantial.

Bobby (a likable Lincoln Clauss) buys a one-way ticket to New York City following the death of his father. Moments after arriving, he runs into Holly (Krystina Alabado), an old friend from back home who invites Bobby to stay with her and her struggling musician boyfriend, Zak (Kenneth Clark). And then there's Will (a charming Perry Sherman), whose famous and wealthy father has also recently died.

Will and Bobby instantly bond over their recent losses and Will appears to take Bobby under his wing for a bit, if only to increase his access to Holly, who he has a crush on. It turns out, though, that Holly and Will dated years back, a secret they have kept from both Bobby and Zak.

Most of the thin but lengthy plot unfurls in the first 15 minutes of the show. Despite this, however, the joyous score (with lyrics by Spring Awakening and Smash star Andy Mientus, and music by the Brooklyn-based band Teen Commandments) and inventive direction (by Jenny Koons) sweeps the audience away until they physically have to jump out of the way of a rolling cube or a stage hand on a mission.

The immersive nature of Burn All Night has been one of the show's selling points, and it does actually enforce the feeling that we're all in this together. Most audience members stand on the dance floor, but there are seats along the sides for those who would rather watch than participate. The action takes place all around A.R.T.'s Club OBERON: on cubes, on a catwalk, on the floor, and — in the case of the fabulous actor MJ Rodriguez — from atop the bar.

But in the end, Burn All Night does not coalesce into anything substantial. The story is slight and the characters underdeveloped. Most frustratingly of all, it is frequently difficult to figure out what's going on. At the performance I attended, chunks of spoken dialogue were impossible to understand, and in many of the musical numbers — which were otherwise glorious, guilty pleasure earworms — the lyrics were unintelligible.

Though there are references to heavy drugging and drinking, which seems to be where the club and all of The Kids (as the terrific ensemble is called) come in, there doesn't seem to be any real problem with the fun that they're all having. It feels sanitized, and Burn All Night would benefit hugely from some depth and some grit.

As anemic as it is, Burn All Night looks intoxicatingly stylish. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton, fresh off a Tony nomination for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, has a lot of fun with the infectious ensemble numbers. Sara Brown's scenic design, Evan Prizant's costumes, and Bradley King's lighting work together well to transport us into the neon world of New York's nightlife. Jessica Paz's sound design, though, could use more balance between the actors and the band.

And what of this global catastrophe in the story? Will the world end tomorrow? Are these young people the only survivors? Has the destruction stopped? Or is it only a metaphorical disaster, with each of the characters grappling with their own futures and places in the world? Those questions remain unanswered, making it feel like the stakes are never high enough. The show ends, instead, with the audience being hit, one last time, with a fun song to blind us from the production's shortcomings.

Still, there are great ideas bubbling under the surface of Burn All Night, and with some work, it's the kind of show that seems destined for a cult following.