Review: Between the Lines Is for the Young Audiences Who Fall Between the Cracks
Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer's novel about literary escapism is now a musical at Second Stage Theatre.
Young Adult fiction is one of the most confounding genres in all of literature. Pick up a piece of YA, and you could be getting anything from a chapter book about making friends at summer camp to a racy drama about sex, drugs, and death. Between the Lines — the sweet fairytale-infused novel Jodi Picoult wrote with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer back in 2012 — leans left of center on that scale. And in its new musical form, directed by Jeff Calhoun at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, Between the Lines has set out on the harrowing quest to bring the gentler side of YA to theater audiences. Many before have tried. Most have failed.
In a world where ticket buyers seem to prefer the Dear Evan Hansens and Spring Awakenings to the Tuck Everlastings and Lightning Thiefs, the battle ahead for Between the Lines largely involves setting the right expectations and finding a core audience. But with so few musicals serving up teen angst without simultaneously carving up our insides, I heartily believe there is a hungry audience out there just waiting to answer the siren call of Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson's alternatingly charming and life-affirming score.
Arielle Jacobs, as our young protagonist Delilah, sings the show's biggest numbers with a vocal range that knows no bounds. There's an essence of Disney princess in her performance — perhaps a relic of her days flying around on Aladdin's magic carpet. But when she joins that pure-heartedness with the full power of her voice, it's truly thrilling, and will no doubt inspire many a teen belter to add her Act 1 closer, "A Whole New Story," to their repertoires.
Jacobs demurely introduces us to her book-wormy character in the opening number, "Another Chapter," a song that frames stories as Delilah's innocent drug of choice. Her life is peppered with complications: a single mother who slogs through life with financial woes and personal bitterness (the great Julia Murney, adding a bit of threatening energy to Delilah's home life); an absent father who started a new family with his yoga instructor; and torturous bullying at her new school, spearheaded by queen bee Allie McAndrews (played at my performance by Aubrey Matalon with villainous influencer energy). Joining Allie in her callous cool-kid posse are her airhead boyfriend, Ryan (Will Burton), an aloof hipster named Martin (Sean Stack), and closeted pretty girl Janice (Jerusha Cavazos).
Delilah's latest escape hatch is a fairytale called Between the Lines, a one-of-kind book she unearths in the shelves of her school library. It's a kiddie tale of princes and dragons, but a crush on the story's equally fatherless hero bowls her over and keeps it glued to her side (Vicki Lewis is fabulous as the librarian Ms. Winx, who sings an overheated lesson about literary crushes called "Mr. Darcy and Me," accompanied by Caite Hevner's inventive projections). Before long, Prince Oliver himself (a boyish and lovely-voiced Jake David Smith) emerges from the pages (creative staging within set designer Tobin Ost's literary wonderland) and strikes up a flirtation with his devoted reader. While Delilah wishes she could escape into Oliver's world, populated by enchanting characters (our real-world ensemble doing double duty in a whimsical collection of Gregg Barnes costumes), Oliver wishes he were living a life more like Delilah's — one that wasn't already written for him.
Even without much left to read between the lines, Delilah and Oliver's completely PG relationship tells a worthy story about taking control of your narrative and never forgetting that you are the protagonist of your own life. Wren Rivera, as Delilah's new (and only) friend Jules, becomes the most compelling messenger of these life lessons. Jules is a nonbinary student who also finds themself on the wrong side of Allie McAndrews's Instagram. But with enviable self-possession and an early-2000s-Avril Lavigne punk spirit (and voice to match), they teach Delilah how to live a life of joyful difference. They also get the majority of book writer Timothy Allen McDonald's best zingers, defibrillating the libretto's long stretches of sentimentality.
Like most new musicals, Between the Lines is a bit overstuffed (Will Burton is a fabulous dancer but do we need an extensive tap number in which he, as an enchanted dog, woos Princess Seraphima?) We end up with an underserved real-world plot about mental health (featuring John Rapson as a cozy school counselor) that brushes past some of its darker hues and rushes us to a happy medium where we cheer for therapy while being reminded that otherness is not a pathology. It's a suspiciously tidy package. But then again, who needs brutal realism when you can escape into a moment of fantasy?