Tweens — a demographic that’s somewhere between child and teenager — are driving the pop culture zeitgeist as evidenced by TV shows like Hannah Montana and High School Musical. So it’s not surprising that Eric H. Weinberger and Beth Falcone’s new musical Wanda’s World, presented by AMAS Musical Theatre at the 45th Street Theater, is similarly pitched to this age group. But this feel-good tuner, well played by a cast of adult actors and smartly directed and choreographed by Broadway veteran Lynne Taylor-Corbett, should appeal to audiences of all ages.
Set in and around the fictional Cheese Valley Middle School, the musical opens with Wanda (Sandie Rosa) hosting a call-in talk show, dispensing advice like “blend equals friend” to various young girls with problems. However, as the number ends, it’s painfully clear that it’s all a fantasy, and Wanda is trying to find a way to overcome her own difficulties, not the least of which is a large birthmark on her face that earns her the nickname “Blotches” from school bully P.J. (Leo Ash Evens). Head cheerleader Jenny (Jennifer Bowles) also picks on Wanda, cruelly dismissing her with the mean-spirited but catchy song, “She’s So Last Week.”
Wanda has better luck with her teachers, including Spanish instructor Ms. Dinglederry (Valerie Wright) and journalism teacher Mr. Lemmings (Chris Vettel). When given the chance to cover the big football game, she leaps at the opportunity to interview quarterback and school golden boy Ty (James Royce Edwards). But a plot set in motion by P.J. threatens to both ruin her budding friendship with Ty and undo any self-confidence she has gained up until that point.
Given the style of the show, a happy ending is never really in doubt and the message about self-acceptance is fairly standard. Even so, Weinberger and Falcone have done an excellent job of making you care about the show’s plucky heroine, and empathize with her plight. Moreover, Falcone’s tuneful score delivers one terrific song after another, from the bouncy title tune, to the hip-hop number “Operation Shutdown,” to the Latin-flavored “Diva Latina,” and the Broadway-style anthem, “A Face Like Mine.”
Rosa is well-cast as the insecure Wanda who knows she can be popular if only given the proper chance. Edwards is adorable as the fresh-faced Ty who scores with his signature song, “What’s Not to Like?” and his duet with Wanda, “Not Everyone Eats Cheese.” He also proves to be a fabulous dancer. Wright is another standout as Mrs. Dinglederry, who incongruously speaks with an Irish lilt while extolling the virtues of the Spanish language.
Weinberger’s book and Falcone’s lyrics contain plenty of laughs — including a large number of cheese jokes — and at times, the piece verges on parody. Yet, Taylor-Corbett and her cast wisely balance the humor with an earnestness that makes Wanda’s World a refreshing change of pace from the overly self-aware and cynical musicals of recent years.