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NYMF 2017: Backbeard, MotherFreakingHood!, Peace, Love, and Cupcakes: The Musical

This is TheaterMania's sixth review roundup of the 2017 New York Musical Festival.

Jimmy Keiffer stars in Backbeard, directed by Michael Musial, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© The Sage Colleges 2017)

Backbeard: The Musical

By David Gordon

Backbeard, inspired by the children's book series of the same title by Matthew McElligott, is about a very hairy pirate going through an identity crisis. When his stinky old duds rip beyond repair, our hero is forced to adopt a new look, one that turns him into a dandy. And the worst part is that he actually likes it.

The new musical, written by McElligott, Larry Tuxbury, Brian Sheldon, and Michael Musial, is not a show where the humor is sly and geared more towards grown-ups. No, this one is strictly for kids, with eye-popping sight gags and exaggerated winks to charm the youngest theatergoers. As far as 70-minute children's musicals go, it's pretty enjoyable and thoroughly harmless, appropriately lacking in foul language and coarse innuendo that parents will have to explain later. The music (credited to Musial, who also directs) is a rollicking assortment of sea shanties and surprisingly lovely ballads, while the lyrics (credited to all four authors) are simple and rhyming.

For a short five-performance run, Backbeard is well-produced, with expensive-looking costumes by Lynn Roblin, candy-colored lighting by Nick Solyom, and a big fairground set by Richard Finkelstein that's augmented by snazzy projections that rapidly change to reflect the setting of each scene.

The company is a bit of a mixed bag (Musial directs everyone to deliver performances that are bigger and louder than they need to be, even for a children's musical), but Jimmy Kieffer is faultless in the title role. He's a buffoon filled with blustery bravado, and deep down under all the huffing and puffing, he gives Backbeard a recognizably human soul. Kieffer has a big future ahead of him, and if Backbeard can find the right venue, it does too.

Annie Dow, Veronica Reyes-How, Harriett D. Foy, Erin Leigh Peck, and Jimmy Brewer star in MotherFreakingHood!, directed by Terry Berliner, for NYMF at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
(© Jeremy Daniel)


By Zachary Stewart

It's the mommy blog of musicals: cute and sympathetic at one moment, then suddenly repulsive the next. In MotherFreakingHood!, expectant mothers Rachael (Veronica Reyes-How), Angie (Erin Leigh Peck), and Marcia (Harriett D. Foy) meet in the gynecologist's office and become best friends for the next 18 years as they raise their kids through diapers, daycare, dating, and driver's ed.

Creators Julie Dunlap and Sara Stotts (who collaborated on book, music, and lyrics) have composed a smorgasbord of toe-tapping songs to accompany their journey, which feels more like a revue than a full book musical. The three leads commit to the style of each of their songs: Foy delivers a sultry "Bully Tango," while Peck lends her big voice to the country-gospel hybrid "Prayer for a Late Bloomer." Reyes-How is sizzling in the dance track "Go Mom!" All three women come together for "Poo-Wop Playgroup," a knockoff Andrews Sisters ditty about defecation.

Director Terry Berliner maintains a lighthearted, comical tone throughout. Antje Ellermann's set of rolling IKEA shelves full of molded plastic crap evokes a daycare while also providing for a variety of locations. The two supporting cast members help facilitate the rapid passage of scenes with their quick character and costume changes: Annie Dow is quite funny in a number of female roles, and the fresh-faced Jimmy Brewer is absolutely delightful as every man in the show, but especially as Mr. Xanax, a trumpet-playing spokesman for big pharma.

Even through the blinding glitz of its manic showmanship, MotherFreakingHood! cannot help but betray the creepy classism that undergirds the mommy-industrial complex, in which books, pricey preschools, and pharmaceuticals are all designed with the aim of rearing America's next ruling class: "Babies who drink formula always go to public school," a singing obstetrician warns the moms in a thick German accent, which doesn't feel like an incidental character choice. If you can get beyond the eugenic undertones, this musical is a hoot.

Madison Mullahey, Calli McRae, and Carrie Berk star in Peace, Love, and Cupcakes: The Musical, directed by Rommy Sandhu, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Nathan Yungerberg)

Peace, Love, and Cupcakes: The Musical

By Grace Ebach

Sugar, butter, and flour may be linked to Broadway's Waitress, but they are also present in Peace, Love, and Cupcakes: The Musical, a delectable addition to this year's New York Musical Festival. While this family-appropriate show, based on Sheryl and Carrie Berk's book of the same name, could use some editing, it shows a great deal of promise while tackling important lessons both kids and adults can learn.

The musical opens with Kylie Carson (Carrie Berk), a spunky monster-movie lover, having a hard time adjusting to her new school. At Blakely Middle School, Meredith (Alexa Reeves) and her BLAH Girls rule by bullying everyone who is "different." To combat the hostility, Kylie starts a cupcake club (aptly named "Peace, Love, and Cupcakes") that is open to anyone in need of friendship and a place to belong. When "Peace, Love, and Cupcakes" starts to gain popularity, Meredith and her clique attempt to destroy the club's success. Kylie and her friends must choose how to respond: fight dirty or take the high road.

One of the biggest takeaways from Peace, Love, and Cupcakes is to never underestimate a cast made up of kids. Carrie Berk absolutely shines as Kylie Carson, while Alexa Reeves portrays Meredith as villainous yet likeable. The BLAH squad seemingly executes Rommy Sandhu's ambitious choreography with ease, and the gang at the cafeteria's allergy table delivers some of the show's funniest moments. Many of the ensemble members, including some of the cast's youngest actors, pull off outstanding vocal performances, namely Berk, Reeves, Diego Lucano, Eliza Holland Madore, and Tai Sandhu. Others, like Cameron Mann and David Hoffman, are effortlessly comfortable and delightfully funny onstage.

Though Peace, Love, and Cupcakes features some great performances, the production could benefit from additional development. While Rick Hip-Flores's pop-infused score proves exceptional, the book (by Sheryl Berk, Carrie Berk, and Jill Jaysen) needs tightening. Too many jokes fall flat, the dialogue feels dumbed down (even for a family show), and the musical's cast of over 20 kids is simply too large, with cast members stumbling over each other during scene changes.

While this musical needs some more time in the oven, Peace, Love, and Cupcakes will inspire kids to embrace their individuality, practice love and empathy, and combat childhood bullying. Ultimately, this delicious work succeeds in communicating that meaningful message.