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Teen Time:
2 Musicals with Teen-Aged Characters
Reviews by Rob Lester

From Babes in Arms to Dear Evan Hansen, we've known teenage characters in musical theatre plots. Audiences of all ages ideally get something to cheer (cheerleaders themselves can be front and center, as in Bring It On, High School Musical ,and We Are the Tigers). In projects created for the stage, issues of peer pressure and popularity populate a piece such as Grease or Be More Chill. More seriously, Spring Awakening musicalized a German play of 1891, while the teen girls in Mean Girls and Heathers, first glimpsed in same-named movies, brought modern edge.

Now we have two more teen-centric titles (which have had multiple productions) to consider, with their composer/lyricist/bookwriters among those we hear on these premiere cast recordings, both on the Ghostlight Records label, released this month in digital/streaming access. Each includes one gay male among its small group of youthful protagonists. From Australia, Yve Blake's Fangirls follows followers of a boyband's lead singer, and hailing from Canada is Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's Ride the Cyclone, the tale of high-schoolers who died in an accident. (Coincidentally, Richmond's earlier non-musical play, Legoland, introduced a girl encountering a boyband star, and she reappears in the newer project.) Let's proceed.

Ghostlight Records
Digital Release

Coming from/ set in Australia, with a kind of electronic bubblegum score and taking place in contemporary times, Fangirls fans the flames of devotees' burning desires. It's not just about wanting to hear and see one's musical crush through technology or live on stage, but to stage a personal meeting (and maybe mating) is the goal. Such obsession may resonate with young audiences' familiarity with a musical flavor du jour, and older audiences may have their memories stirred. After all, decades and musical styles may pass into history, but a certain kind of uber-passionate reaction to male singers comes with each generation. While Bye Bye Birdie winked at pop music and public relations with local fan clubs of the titular character singing their loyalty to their own American idol, Fangirls doesn't so merrily mock or minimize the intensity of obsession. Affectionately observed and played out, adolescent fervor and naïveté are normalized rather than judged.

In this angsty saga, the object of affection is a charismatic vocalist named Harry, of a group called True Connection. Yes, the names not-so-coincidentally bring to mind real-life pop phenom Harry Styles and his boyband One Direction. The saga begins with True Connection's percolating pop hit with a lyric promising the listener that "'Nobody' loves you like me": a feeling that 14-year-old Edna, our central character, is sure she feels about Harry and that would be proven to him if and when they can meet in person.

The writer of the musical's songs and book, Yve Blake, is Edna on this premiere cast recording, a role she performed in the first of the show's several productions. She's effective in both feisty and vulnerable moments, playing the girl whose life has social, financial, and emotional challenges, her "happy place" being when she's focused on her dreamboat celebrity. While the other actor-singers heard here weren't all in the first or most recent (a just-ended) mounting, present is the only one of the seven-member cast who performed his role in all versions. He is the engagingly energetic James Majoos, playing chatty and cheery Saltypringl, Edna's gay online friend, fellow Harryophile, and collaborator on the fan fiction. Also singing strong opinions to validate or vex Edna include major females in her life: her single mom and two peers who also are into the music and musicians.

Synthetic sounds with gauzy ambiance and low-key percussive prevalence in the musical backdrop are useful in suggesting the foggy, fuzzy feel of distance appropriate to being lost in one's imagination and communicating on the internet. Wispy and ethereal in some spots and murky in others, many tracks' echoey, layered soundscape technique may result in the impact being a case of diminishing returns; some may long for more relief via crisper and simpler acoustic passages.

Lyrics dutifully emulate everyday conversation and thoughts, with the flavor of teenspeak, so don't expect anything richly poetic or sophisticated. Songs such as "Set You Free" and "Night of Our Lives" capture the desire and zeal that envelop much of the mindset. In a number near the end, there's rue and palpable pain pondering the dismissive categorization of an enraptured fan being merely a "Silly Little Girl." Conflicts and frustrations resound in several numbers, with the carefree and fluffy entries providing relief and release.

Some included dialogue helps us follow the story as the plot thickens beyond the thrill of True Connection making their first trip to Edna's locality and the goal of procuring tickets and a scheme to get backstage. Absent virtual liner notes that might have given full text of what's sung and spoken, plus a detailed synopsis, it can be confusing. In first listening, I was occasionally uncertain who was being addressed or responded to, which of the two main friends was commenting, or if the more dramatic, credulity-stretching later events indeed were truly happening or could be part of the fan fiction project or a dramatic dream. Luckily, much of the context-providing information can be found on the internet, including interviews with the writer and web articles. And fans of Fangirls are definitely around with appreciative comments.

Although the second half has its extreme and unsettling events when heartthrob Harry encounters Edna, portraits of more typical teen life will ring true for some, especially those music consumers who'd indeed feel a sense of a true connection to True Connection-esque pop figures. Palpable on a deeper level can be the blatant and subtle flashes of yearning, unrest, frustration, loneliness, despair, or parent/child tensions. That's a lot of emotion. And, sometimes it's danceable.

Ghostlight Records
Digital Release

Darkly comic, pointed, entertainingly haunting, often mischievously sly—the musical Ride the Cyclone has much to offer. Its plot is a matter of life and death—mostly death, for we learn right away that its six teenage characters have been killed when the roller coaster named in the musical's title derailed. As they linger in Purgatory, they sing about themselves, informed that one will be chosen to actually return to life. How's that for a high-stakes competition?

In addition to the sextet of actors playing the distinctively different high schoolmates and a vocal ensemble, the quirky show's co-writers are also heard on the world premiere recording. Brooke Maxwell deftly takes some lead vocals in a couple of numbers, and his partner Jacob Richmond is a wicked delight in the dialogue role of the carnival mechanical fortune-teller who serves as narrator and acerbic commenter about random death and other matters. (One nugget of life-lesson advice is that living next to an active volcano is really not a wise decision.)

The most recent production of the wild ride that is Ride the Cyclone was in 2019 in Minneapolis, but this premiere cast recording does not include any of its seven leads. Kholby Wardell—polished and show-stoppingly inhabiting the gay character Noel, who toils at Taco Bell but imagines a life as a glamorous European cabaret diva—sings in a style that suggests that aura. It's a hoot. He's essayed the role in the presentations Off-Broadway in 2016 and in four American cities between 2015 and 2019, as well as the 2011 Canadian debut and the subsequent tour.

On the recording, the three female roles are played by women who were in previous productions. Every modern story populated by teenagers seems to have its strutting, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, snippy girl reveling in her own popularity and here that's Ocean, played by Tiffany Tatreau with appropriate grating glee as she gloats in the bouncy, poppy strut insisting that "What the World Needs" is people like herself. Her supposed best friend, the far more modest and gentler spirit, is Constance (Lillian Castillo), whose sweet personality is suggested by the title of her own big number, "Sugarcloud." It's delivered with blithe charm. In "The Ballad of Jane Doe," the third female character is assigned a song whose title references the name she's temporarily known by. (Her identity not immediately established since the accident caused her decapitation). Emily Rohm tackles the grandly hyper-dramatic song with embellished with operatic flourishes, and her voice soars with flair to spare.

Also aboard and impressive in their all-stops-out showpieces are two men who were only part of one incarnation (Atlanta, 2019). They are Scott Redmond as the mute Ricky (who, through the magic of theatre and death, is allowed to sing as his fantasy alter ego of a lusty "Space Age Bachelor Man") and Chazz Duffy as the Ukrainian dude Misha who expresses himself in gangsta rap mode. In amusing contrast, he switches from that brash conceit to drip flowery romantic ardor when crooning "Talia"; she's his online girlfriend. Much variety is achieved by using so many musical styles to convey the often oversized but very different personalities and self-images.

Some decidedly over-the-top silliness provides surface humor, but there's a more thought-provoking agenda and hovering point of view about life's absurdities and priorities. Ride the Cyclone aims to please ... and succeeds.

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