[Ed. Note: This is the first of three TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the second annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.]
Everyone thinks Megan is a lesbian: She’s recently become a vegetarian, has pictures from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue in her locker, and doesn’t appreciate her boyfriend’s kisses. So her friends and family stage an intervention, shipping the 17-year-old cheerleader — who maintains that she’s heterosexual — off to True Directions, an ex-gay youth program designed to stamp out the nascent homosexuality of its young charges. But after she meets fellow True Directions attendee Graham, Megan begins to think that everyone was right about her after all.
Based on the 1999 cult film of the same title, But I’m a Cheerleader is a hilarious new musical comedy in the vein of shows like Hairspray and Bat Boy. Book writer and lyricist Bill Augustin has followed the basic plot of the movie and even lifted some of its best lines verbatim. He has also provided plenty of his own snappy dialogue and further develops some of the film’s subplots and supporting characters. Andrew Abrams’ pop-rock score is catchy and full of pep. As directed by Daniel Goldstein, the production has style, spunk, and a whole lot of heart.
Chandra Lee Schwartz is excellent as Megan, her vibrant performance striking the perfect balance between camp and sincerity. She’s a vocal powerhouse as well, especially impressive in her solo “Graham’s Kiss” and in the love duet “This Is How It Feels,” performed with Kelly Karbacz as Graham. Several of the supporting players are also noteworthy. John Hill is sexy and funny as Rock; Enrico Rodriguez provides one of the show’s musical and emotional highlights with his song “Wrestling”; P.J. Griffith is charmingly goofy as Megan’s boyfriend, Jared; and three cheerleaders (Sarah Katherine Mason, Nicole Cicchella, and Paul Lane) prompt plenty of laughs as they perform increasingly wacky cheers during scene transitions.
Despite a few glitches in the sound system and an off-key note sung here and there by supporting cast members, But I’m a Cheerleader delivers. By show’s end, it’s the audience that’s ready to cheer.
There’s no music in Richard Cory’s life. Everyone around him is singing, but his words are merely spoken. That’s the basic conceit of Richard Cory, a haunting but aloof musical theater piece adapted from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem about a man who seems to have everything up until the chilling final couplet: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
Playwright A.R. Gurney turned the poem into a play, expanding the sixteen-line verse into a work that considers what might be going on in the title character’s life that would lead him to his fatal decision. In turn, Ed Dixon took Gurney’s play and set it to music. There are only a few segments of the piece that could be performed as distinct songs; for the most part, Dixon has musicalized vernacular dialogue in the manner of works like Leonard Bernstein’s chamber opera Trouble in Tahiti. Unwisely, the score’s dirge-like qualities overemphasize the musical’s foregone conclusion and at times prevent the audience from connecting to the scenes as they’re actually being played.
The ensemble cast, under the capable direction of James Brennan, impresses. Standouts include Christeena Riggs as the lovestruck Louise; Maureen Moore as Charlotte, Richard’s longtime friend, who awkwardly attempts to begin an affair with him; and Lynne Wintersteller as Emily, Richard’s wife. A lunchtime scene between Richard and Emily, in which they come to an “arrangement” that would allow them both to dispense with marital fidelity, is compelling primarily due to Wintersteller’s restrained yet emotionally stirring performance.
In the title role, Herndon Lackey has a strong presence and confident swagger that make it easy to see why Richard Cory is admired by so many. Cady Huffman is amusing as a waitress in a low-class dive that Richard begins to frequent in an attempt to get in touch with the common man. Harris Doran, though not as accomplished a singer as many of his fellow cast members, makes a memorable impression as Richard’s son, Chip. The scene between father and son is notable for the simple fact that most of it is not musicalized. It’s not until the end of the scene, when Chip talks about leaving town and striking out on his own, that the music starts up and he begins to sing.
Richard Cory is a challenging piece that is often more admirable than enjoyable. While there’s some humor and vitality in the musical, it only rarely engages the emotions.
Depression and electric shock therapy are not subjects that you’d think would make for a good musical. Nevertheless, in Feeling Electric, composer Tom Kitt and book writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey have crafted a powerful tale of a woman named Diana (played by Amy Spanger) whose deep depression over a tragic loss might only be alleviated by sending a few volts through her brain.
Diana has tried other treatments, including all manner of pills, but nothing has worked. Following another failed suicide attempt, she and husband Dan (Joe Cassidy) decide to follow the recommendation of Diana’s psychiatrist, Dr. Madden (Anthony Rapp), and agree to shock therapy. The decision is not made lightly, and the musical’s depiction of Madden and the psychiatric profession is much more sympathetic than one might think. “Medicine is not perfect,” says Madden, “but it’s what we have.”
Directed by Peter Askin, the production is minimally staged, and a few of the actors still carry their scripts; but this does not diminish the show’s impact, as the ensemble cast demonstrates strong connections to both the material and each other. While Rapp and Spanger may have greater marquee value than the others (and both deliver excellent performances), the heart and soul of this production is Cassidy as Dan. His gorgeous tenor is a joy to hear in some of the show’s most emotionally devastating songs, including a duet with his son (played by Benjamin Schrader) late in the second act that serves as the musical’s climax. Annaleigh Ashford as daughter Natalie also makes a very good impression, particularly in her brilliant solo “Growing Up Unstable.”
Kitt’s hard-driving score calls to mind some of the best work by such rock artists as The Who, Genesis, and Melissa Etheridge. Despite the subject matter, Yorkey’s script is full of humor (albeit mostly of the dark variety). The show paints an unflinching and complex portrait of its characters’ pain. At the performance I attended, it reduced several audience members — including me — to tears.
There are bound to be disappointments in any theater festival. In this year’s NYMF, one of them is The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde, featuring music by Dana P. Rowe and book and lyrics by Michael Aman and Oscar E. Moore. The show’s uninspired, country/western flavored score is often too lackadaisical to create much dramatic tension, and there’s little to be found here in terms of fleshed out characters or interesting dialogue.
Slackly directed by Michael Bush, the production lumbers along without igniting the kind of energy that you’d think would come naturally in a musical treatment of the famed outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Rising country music star Sherrie Austin does as much as she can as Bonnie; she exudes sex appeal and charisma, and her rendition of the second act tune “Roads I Ain’t Yet Seen” is genuinely moving. But Austin can’t work miracles, and her performance is not enough to save the show.
Deven May, best known for creating the title role in Bat Boy, is at sea here. His put-on Southern accent is grating, and his Clyde is almost a caricature. The same can be said about the remaining cast members, who are unable to overcome the limitations of the material. The show’s opening number promises that “It’s Romeo and Juliet but served Southern fried.” Others might rate the musical as undercooked.