Friday, November 17, 2017

109 (2017-2018): Review: THE MAD ONES (seen November 15, 2017)

“A Memory Jumble”

It comes as a bit of a surprise that high school students today—or at least those in Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s well-performed, small-scale, dramatically inert new musical, The Mad Ones—are still inspired by Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel of 1957, On the Road.
Krystina Alabado, Leah Hocking. Photo: Richard Termine.
In this coming of age show, Kerouac’s Beat generation book, based on a 1947 road trip across America by Kerouac and a friend, forces a gifted but insecure, emotionally drifting 18-year-old high school senior to face the future by making a choice: begin college at an Ivy League university or drive off into the sunset, destination unknown, to find the freedom she’s presumably been denied. 

The Mad Ones gets its title from a Kerouac line quoted in the script about the only people he admires, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. . . .” Samantha Brown (Krystyna Alabado) yearns to be one of those mad ones; for this top student, her class’s valedictorian, who’s always followed the usual road, the decision about whether or not to take the less traveled one is agonizing.
Krystina Alabado. Photo: Richard Termine.
Two powerful forces strive to influence which road she’ll select: one is her demanding, carefully planning mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking), a professor of statistics, who wants her to attend Harvard, where she's been accepted, and likes to remind her daughter of the mathematical likelihood of getting killed in a car accident. The other is Sam’s colorful, fast-talking, free-living, risk-taking, wisecracking bestie, Kelly (Emma Hunton). Kelly has her own car and a taste for the open road.

The show opens on the day Sam is supposed to leave for college; she’s sitting in Kelly’s car, its key in her hand, hesitating about whether to turn the key. When the show ends, she’s still there, and she’s made her decision. Everything in between is a flashback as Sam’s memories of her senior year fly by, in “a memory jumble,” as Kelly puts it. Kelly, though, is a ghost, having recently died. Sam sees her as a still living presence, offering her advice and reliving their senior year’s highlights, if such relative lowlights can thus be called.
Emma Hunton, Krystina Alabado. Photo: Richard Termine.
As the show, filled with 14 songs, proceeds, Sam’s memories introduce her boyfriend, Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson), the sweet, shy, supportive, but dim lightbulb who plans to go into his dad’s tire business. Sam’s love for Adam, a guy too inhibited even to mention a woman’s “period,” already hints at her veering from the conventional. Similarly, having Kelly, a mediocre student with decidedly mature ways of expressing herself (physically and verbally), as her best friend suggests that Sam is more off the beaten path than she thinks.

Despite the various incidents flashing through Sam’s mind during the show’s hour and 40 minutes, the fuzzy narrative has very little punch, the effect being more an episodic assortment of emotional reactions to various stimuli than dramatic actions. Too much teeters not only on the brink of overfamiliarity but on the banal.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
Before we learn Sam’s ultimate choice, we watch Kelly recklessly driving Sam around as they sing and talk of freedom and breaking the rules; discover how Beverly’s gift for statistics (“numbers don’t lie”) makes her fear for Sam’s safety and happiness; learn of Sam’s multiple efforts to pass her driving test; experience imaginary sidebar activities, as when the girls do a countdown of the ways that Kelly might die; share memories of Sam and Adam’s personal and sexual relationship; observe Kelly and Sam on a college tour; witness a meeting with Sam’s guidance counselor; and see Beverly coping with Sam’s intentions, disagreeing with Kelly, and warning Sam about the dangers in store for a woman traveling the road alone. The rest is more of the same. 

The book is a loose arrangement of scenes allowing for rapid transitions from one to another on what is essentially a bare stage, designed by Adam Rigg, with a two-tiered platform (with two sets of headlights set into them) and only the odd table or chairs when needed. Strips of neon lighting outline parts of the upstage area; overhead, a room-shaped unit hangs to no apparent purpose. No physical representation of a car is provided, not even a steering wheel to turn. David Lander provides cool lighting although much of it seems overly fond of smoke effects.

On a few occasions, the three supporting actors momentarily assume other roles, perhaps with a slight costume change, perhaps not. The costumes by Jessica Pabst help express the characters, although the wings on Kelly's jacket are an unsubtle touch. Now and then, bits of choreography, courtesy of Alexandra Beller are included, but these are more to demonstrate familiar dance moves than anything more extensive.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
Kerrigan and Lowdermilk’s score favors songs requiring big, belting voices, which the company very capably provides. Several of the songs, like “Run Away With Me” and “Say the Word” are already familiar to musical theatre buffs through their YouTube versions. Well sung as the songs are there’s a sameness to them that blends one with the other, making no particular one stand out.

Stephen Brackett directs with verve and each of his actors is up their tasks. Krystina Alabado, her eyebrows forming a nearly perpetual chevron, is believably anxious in an essentially one-note role. It’s no fault of hers that she’s overshadowed by the flamboyance of Emma Hunton’s Kelly, in ripped jeans, denim jacket, and red-tinted hair. 

Leah Hocking is a commanding Beverly, able to shift on a dime from Maternal Mom to Monster Mom, while Jay Armstrong Johnson makes a thoroughly delightful Adam. The latter, in fact, is all the more remarkable as he took over the role only shortly before previews began when Ben Fankhauser had to step down because of vocal problems. Fankhauser returns on December 3.
Krystina Alabado, Emma Hunton. Photo: Richard Termine.
The Mad Ones, first called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown and originally presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival New Musicals, is produced by the Prospect Theater Company, a New York company with a distinguished record of new musical production since 1998.

Prospect begins a three-year residency at 59E59 Theaters with Mad Ones and, while I wasn’t mad about it, the work received a very warm welcome when I attended, another reviewer even whispering to me that she liked it more than Broadway’s newest hit, The Band’s Visit. Having seen that wonderful show last night, though, convinces me that in such a view madness lies. Nonetheless, I look forward to being mad (in the Noel Coward sense) about the Prospect’s next offering.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 17