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Volume 77, Number 18 | October 3 - 9, 2007

Villager Arts & Lifestyles / Theater

NYMF takes on mental illness and murder — with music

By Rachel Fershleiser

ADD. OCD. Mass murder. Tap dancing? The fourth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival is underway, and it’s leaving no topic unturned. Fast becoming the Sundance of musicals, NYMF (affectionately pronounced “nymph”) is a clearinghouse for new voices both on stage and off. This year marked the debut of the program’s 100th show, and while many have never been heard from again, others, like Altar Boyz, Gutenberg! The Musical, and the clever meta-musical [title of show], have gone on to commercial runs, and even Broadway buzz.

This year’s crop features shows based on true crime, Jane Austen, ancient poetry, Shakespeare, Vaudeville, and Sherlock Homes. I saw three performances, and while they varied in quality, each fulfilled the festival’s mission of bringing something new and innovative to the stage. Themes of mental health, fame-obsession, and outcast revenge seem to speak to 2007, while the $20 ticket price is downright retro. Anyone interested in the future of musical theatre should take a gamble and see a show or seven. It’s affordable, convenient, and guaranteed more entertaining than another episode of “Dancing With the Stars” — or The Phantom of the Opera.

The Boy in the Bathroom is the best musical I’ve ever seen about agoraphobia. The titular boy (Michael Zahler), actually diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, spends the show’s full ninety-minute duration in an onstage five by ten foot enclosure with a toilet, sink, and tub. We are in current-day, small-town Michigan, and David hasn’t left the room, nor allowed anyone else in, for over a year.

His mother, played by Broadway vet (and [title of show] inside joke) Mary Stout, enables him with torn-out book pages, new toilet paper, and two-dimensional sustenance. Her musical number about “food that fits under the door” — pancakes, tortillas, matzoh, fruit roll-ups — just about stops the show, but it isn’t until the last few songs that the character’s depths are revealed, and the true motivations for her patience may not be so innocent.

But it is not-so-innocent Julie (Ana Nogeira), the semi-trashy girl next door, who brings about a transformation. After she is hired to clean the house during mom’s physical therapy, she forges a bond with the boy she can’t see. Despite their alleged mid-twenties ages (less believable in Zahler’s Leaf Coneybear-ish physicality and line delivery) it is knock-knock jokes and children’s games that bring them together, sliding cards and spinners under the door during a touching number about “taking a Risk when you don’t have a Clue.” Fear is David’s raison d’etre, and his songs are riddled with references to safety and control, until Julie makes him feel “kind of normal” and “almost okay.”

Michael Lluberes and Joe Maloney’s score is solid if not chock full of toe tappers, and the script is moving, if occasionally self-consciously quirky and overwrought. But the brilliance of The Boy in the Bathroom lies in the power with which the audience is drawn into its strange and tiny world. As tension builds between David and Julie, we buy the premise so completely it is difficult to breathe while the door is “unlocked,” even though we can’t see the door in the first place. A finger poked under it is pure exhilaration, and at its best moments, so is Boy in the Bathroom.

Love Kills, by “New York’s hipster playwright” Kyle Jarrow, is built for exhilaration. It is full of screaming rock music, blinding lights, electric guitars, shotguns, blood, and gratuitous nudity. Based on a ripped-from-the-headlines murder spree, it “plays fast and loose with the facts,” choosing to re-imagine the 1958 case of baby-faced killers Charlie Starkweather (Eli Schneider) and Caril Ann Fugate (Marisa Rhodes) as an allegory of passion, fame, and revenge.

The play’s action (if you can call it that) doesn’t begin until Charlie and Caril have been arrested and thrown in separate jail cells. We don’t see the two shooting up family members and innocent bystanders as they hold hands; we don’t see the all-consuming young love that supposedly keeps them at it. Except for a few flashbacks, the script focuses on the town sheriff (John Hickok) and his soft-hearted wife (Deirdre O’Connell) as they attempt to elicit confessions before the lawyers arrive. Neither the tough-talking threats nor pop-psychology wheedling will sound fresh to anyone who’s ever watched “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

The show’s music is more original, as modern-day emo rock bursts Spring Awakening-style from the period piece. When Charlie and Caril leave their cells to spill their guts into stage-front microphones, rock and roll speaks the timeless inner voice of teen angst, and these young killers have more angst than most. Marissa Rhodes, an “American Idol” finalist, has a strong, sexy pop-affected voice, and Eli Schneider captures anger and pain in equal measures. Still, the songs are largely indecipherable, often trite when they’re understood, and totally inappropriate in the mouths of the conservative older couple whose solid, passionless marriage forms a foil to the youngsters’ crazy love.

Love Kills is uneven but entertaining. Through a fifty-year-old story, it touches on modern-day themes of fame and retaliation, trench-coat mafia style. But for all the singing of love so superlative only death can match it, the show never quite makes us understand the motivations that could have made young lovers into cold-blooded killers. Like the crimes themselves, fervor and fury are described rather than demonstrated, and for a show so fixated on passion and gore, the end result is curiously bloodless.

Yellow Wood presents a much sunnier perspective on the outsider teen. Inspired by the Robert Front Poem “The Road Not Taken,” the B.D. Wong-directed high school musical follows ADD-afflicted Adam Davies (big-voiced Chorus Line alum Jason Tam) on the day he decides to go to school without Ritalin. Adam has a Caucasian father, a Korean mother, a gifted sister, and an inferiority complex — ah, the modern American family. His inability to memorize the famous poem everyone else seems to know leaves him feeling stupid, and his disconnect with his Asian heritage leaves him confused.

So begins an abstract journey into the modern teenage psyche, populated with a large and largely hilarious supporting cast: Caissie Levy as Willis, the free-spirited love interest who sees learning disabilities as a window to creativity, Randy Blair as the oddball best friend, whose rubber body and voice draw applause in a variety of comic asides, MaryAnn Hu as the hefty, Grandma Tzeitel-esque angry Korean ancestor, and a host of teen and teacher archetypes from cheerleader to computer geek to fey librarian.

Yellow Wood is a full two-act musical, and benefits from cleverly designed production numbers and intelligent multitasking. Classroom stools can be a jungle or a bridge, black umbrellas transform into the fabled yellow wood, and a classic seventies overhead projector creates most of the backdrops (nevermind that this blog-referencing generation of teens would never have seen one).

This warm-hearted show, by Michelle Elliot and Daniel Larsen, will likely be embraced by the “freaks, geeks, outsiders, Goths, nerds, weirdoes, and drama kids” it glorifies, but I wonder if it really flies with a grown-up audience. The script and score are engaging but simplistic, and its video-game motif and love-yourself message seem better suited to the Disney channel than the Broadway stage. (Wait, is there a difference anymore?) Still, the performances are terrific, the songs are charming, and as Adam realizes at the show’s happy ending, “a good poem is about everyone.”

The New York Musical Theatre Festival runs through October 7. Find show information online at nymf.org.

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