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NYMF 2017: Play Like a Winner, A Wall Apart, Generation Me

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

Jessica Tyler Wright, Casey Erin Clark, Kristan Espiritu, and Karen Burthwright in a scene from Play Like a Winner.
(© Shira Friedman Photography)

Play Like a Winner

By Hayley Levitt

Based on Caytha Jentis's stage play It's All About the Kids, Play Like a Winner explores the dark side of suburbia and the soccer moms who populate it. The show opens on a soccer field of parents surrounding a dead body that's been impaled by a corner flag. As our protagonist Kathy (sung beautifully by Jessica Tyler Wright) explains, it all started in her kitchen (the first of many female tropes that may send the feminist members of the audience into a tailspin).

Flash back to Kathy convincing her less-than-cool daughter Jenna (a spunky Zoe Wilson) to try out for the soccer team. After all, sports boost self-esteem, build character, and enhance college résumés. No matter that the star player happens to be Zoe's greatest tormentor. Cue the tormentor's vindictive mother Melissa (Casey Erin Clark), the hunky and ruthless soccer coach Nick (Nicolas Dromard), and songs like "Snack Mom" that mock the meaningless tasks that befall upper-middle-class homemakers. Meanwhile down the road, Kathy's best friend and fellow soccer mom Tracy (Megan Kane) is slowly losing her husband Gary (Frank Viveros, whose sultry voice could make any tune sound heavenly) to the demands of the soccer team and his "bromance" with Coach Nick.

The subject lends itself well to dark satire — something akin to the musical adaptation of Heathers that played a successful off-Broadway run in 2014. But Erik Johnke (book and lyrics) and David Wolfson (music) have not yet struck the comic tone that, like good satire does, unearths buried truths beneath the surface of the material. As of now, Play Like a Winner leans on simple melodies and crude shock value that make you uncomfortable without the payoff of satisfying insight. It's a play that might win a few laughs, but that's not enough of a winning strategy.

Jordan Bondurant and company in A Wall Apart.
(© Michael Schoenfeld)

A Wall Apart

By David Gordon

Air Supply front man Graham Russell pens the music and lyrics to A Wall Apart, a limp but well-meaning new musical about love separated by the Berlin Wall.

The work focuses on two couples: Mickey (Josh Tolle), a musician who's married to Suzanne (Emily Behnny), and Mickey's brother Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), who falls in love with Esther (Maddie Shea Baldwin), a waitress at the club where Mickey's band frequently plays. At the urging of their older brother Hans (Darren Ritchie), Kurt becomes a member of the German border patrol. Tensions rise as tall as the Berlin Wall, which, when erected, divides their relationships just as the wall divides their city. A catastrophic event occurs that threatens to destroy everything they hold dear.

While the show takes place primarily in the 1960s, Russell's score, and Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde's book resemble relics of different eras. The latter is reminiscent of the hoary old musicals from the Golden Age (with lines like "It's a job. You need a roof over your head." "I have a roof over my head. It's the walls and floor I can't afford"). Russell's songs, meanwhile, are all written in the musical-theater idiom of the mid-1990s, with earnest rhymes and an abrasive electric guitar-driven sound that drowns out the singers.

With direction and choreography by Keith Andrews, A Wall Apart never shakes the feeling that it was created after repeated viewings of Rent. The movement is frenetic and the pace is equally frenzied. Each cast member has an athletic rock-and-roll voice, but the principals have a hard time accessing genuine emotional moments due to the hasty direction. There's a sweet love story there, but the creative team needs to do a little more digging to find it.

Milo Manheim in the new musical Generation Me
(© Shira Friedman Photography)

Generation Me

By David Gordon

A deeply troubled individual takes his own life at the start of Generation Me. The circumstances surrounding the death of Milo Reynolds (played by Milo Manheim) are mysterious: according to his sister Zoe (Brett Hargrave), Milo didn't leave a note. Instead, he placed 27 calls to his best friend Cody (Will Meyers) in the hours before his death.

The mystery of Milo's suicide, and why he chose to do it, is at the heart of this new musical, which features a book and lyrics by Julie Soto and music by Will Finan. While the subject matter is somewhat familiar — think Dear Evan Hansen meets Spring Awakening meets Next to Normal — the rawness of the show's emotional scope and the freshness of its cast make it a standout experience.

Soto tells her story through flashbacks; the events leading up to Milo's death are played out in vivid detail. He's a damaged soul, but so are his millennial friends, each of whom is more interested in him or herself than they are with each other. It's a hard piece to watch if you've ever experienced the suicide of a friend, especially one who seemed, at least on the surface, like they had it all.

Though the piece tends to ramble in the second act, Finan and Soto provide both juicy, emotional solos and fun group numbers that keep the audience engaged. Director Ryan Warren pulls affecting performances out of his young cast, and especially multilayered work from Manheim (son of actress Camryn Manheim). Jacob Montoya's balletic choreography helps amplify the emotional impact.

If Broadway isn't the next step for Generation Me, with a lot of great roles and a delicately emotional soul, it could find a home among student theater groups. It will create a lasting impact and mean a lot to anyone that age who sees and relates to it.