Love in Hate Nation Is Not the New Orange Is the New Black
Joe Iconis's women-in-prison musical makes its world premiere at Two River Theater.
Composer Joe Iconis's musical Be More Chill had its world premiere in 2015 at Two River Theater. After a modest run, its cast recording surprisingly hit a nerve with teens and became an underground success. In 2018, it struck off-Broadway gold before moving to Broadway, where audiences didn't find the show's teen-angsty vibe as catchy as its younger, shallower-pocketed fans did.
Will Joe Iconis's Love in Hate Nation follow the same trajectory as Be More Chill? His new musical — he wrote the book, music, and lyrics — is now also having its world premiere at Two River Theater. But it seems less likely that this work, with energetic if unfocused direction by John Simpkins, will catch on in the same way. Be More Chill had a quirky, lighthearted premise: A nerdy, sexually frustrated teen finds he can take a pill that will turn him into a popular kid. It's wish fulfillment for every pubescent outcast.
Not so quirky and lighthearted, and much less funny, is Love in Hate Nation, in which a depressed, black, queer teenage girl named Susannah Son (Amina Faye) also thinks her problems can be solved by taking a pill — make that a handful of pills. But instead of bringing Susannah to a mental-health professional, her white adoptive father sends her to the National Reformatory for Girls, known by its inmates as the Nation.
Amid clanking steel pipes and a solitary confinement room looming above (set by Meredith Ries), Susannah meets a group of other 1960s teens who've been locked up for a number of reasons: Southern belle wannabe Dorothy (Lena Skeele) is there for fraud, Brooklyn-born Rat (Jasmine Forsberg) for theft, trans female Kitty (Emerson Mae Smith) for being herself, one-eyed Judith (Tatiana Wechsler) for castrating a man, and geeky Ya-Ya (Sydney Farley) for being delusional. Electroshock therapy is the treatment of choice, and solitary confinement the usual punishment. Pyromaniac and all-around rebel Sheila Nail (Kelly McIntyre) has just gotten out of solitary, and when Susannah lays eyes on her, it's the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name at first sight.
Miss Asp (Lauren Marcus), an embodiment of the era's female repression who wears a pair of golden shears around her neck, rules over the girls like a psychotic Barbara Billingsley. (Karen Perry's costumes are strangely permissive for such a tyrant, with Sheila sporting a rebellious-looking leather jacket, and J. Jared Janas's Amy Winehouse-inspired hair for Judith shows the Nation's oddly relaxed standards for coiffures.) Ryan Vona campily plays several caricatures of awful white men who help run the Nation, including Doc Shock, the "therapist," and Buzz, a rapey orderly. He also plays Francis, Susannah's socially woke (except for the gays) boyfriend on the outside who is determined to rescue Susannah from prison. The girls, however, have their own plans in mind. But if they escape, will Sheila and Susannah be free, or will their love still be shackled by society?
The young cast delivers some great performances. Faye shows off her powerful voice in the Act 1 closer "I Hope," and the rest are given their own moments to shine. The other songs in this doo-wop-heavy musical have a familiar Iconis ring. There's a hint of Hairspray mixed in with edgier rock and roll, but only now and then does the score really come to life. The two love duets sung by Susannah and Sheila, "The Other One" and "Oh Well," stand out from the rest; the latter, with its lyric "When she's around my heart says sha la la," is hands down the show's earworm. We have to wait until the end, however, for "Revolution Song," where Mayte Natalio's choreography finally comes together with both the music and Isabella Byrd's vibrant lighting in the show's one electrifying number.
With its celebration of diversity and rebellion against the status quo, Love in Hate Nation is bound to have fans. But there's something unsettling in its use of women-in-prison films like 1950's So Young, So Bad to explore the plights of Susannah and the Nation's other oppressed inmates. Audiences are familiar with how the stories about incarcerated women have evolved into complex character studies as in Orange Is the New Black, but unlike that TV show, Love in Hate Nation never rises above the cringey tropes of the film genre — until the very end, when we're tantalized with the vision of a musical that might have been. We root for Susannah, Sheila, Kitty, and the rest because we recognize our present struggles in them. It's too bad their stories are trapped in moldy cells of celluloid.