DIS HERE’S A DIFF’RENT KIND OF HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
There is something very sweet going on in Eric Dodson’s and Alan Ross Fleishman’s new musical A Ring in Brooklyn. The unusual pleasure of the unamplified human voice—the performers use no microphones—is coupled with the creators’ obvious affection for their characters, elevating a rather simple premise into an evening of unexpectedly poignant entertainment.
It’s 1989. A ten year reunion looms for six alums of the Roosevelt High School Class of 1979. They are the usual archetypes with enough zigs and zags to make it interesting: The women are comprised of the slut, the good girl, and the dummy. The men are the jock, the nerd, and the drama geek. Also dragged along unwillingly to the reunion is the good girl’s inattentive husband. The action ping-pongs back and forth between 1989 and 1979.
The ring referenced in the title drives the action. Its rightful ownership has been in question for the ten years that have passed since graduation, and uncovering the full story of what happened and why obsesses most of the characters. And that’s pretty much it. Secrets come out, high school miseries and rivalries are revisited, and we all learn a few welcome if predictable lessons about love and emotional generosity.
Developed under the auspices of The Academy for New Musical Theatre in association with DOMA Theatre Company, A Ring in Brooklyn is an unabashedly commercial work, and with more rewrites and a lot of luck, it could have a shot at breaking through. The high school reunion element is familiar without feeling overworked and the humor is gentle if a bit raunchy—a not unwelcome combination in terms of broad audience appeal.
But further development is the key.
The show is easily a half hour too long, maybe more. The writers would do well to forego the overlong opening sequence of the characters getting their invitations to the reunion and deciding whether to go. It is not surprising that they all decide to attend since that’s what the whole show is about, nor is their decision-making process revealing enough or interesting enough to warrant it’s inclusion.
The second act also starts with a number that seems superfluous. We’re in the middle of a fight at the end of the first act, then the second act opens with a song about how great disco is, before returning to the same fight, exactly where we left off at the end of the first act. There’s a lot of repetition in the scenes that reveal the conflicting stories about the ring—though the storylines themselves are rather clever. When we do learn the truth and the rightful owner is revealed, it is surprising and satisfying.
The performers are on the whole rather winning. Anna Hanson does a lot with the material she’s given as slutty Tracy. One of her funnier bits has to do with trying to arrange a fix-up, “This is Barry, he does my hair,” she says. “And this is Winston.” She points to her pelvic region. “He also does my hair.” It’s coarse, certainly, but still witty. Yet there are times when the vulgarity swamps her. Lyrics like, “Fuck that bitch, look how she taunts me,” are not clever enough for any performer to pull off. Why on earth she wears flats is beyond me. There is something spectacularly wrongheaded about asking a voluptuous actress to slink about the stage without benefit of stilettos. And after yammering on endlessly about not wearing panties, it is ill-advised to stage an entire sequence with her panties pulled down, flash back or no flash back.
Gabrielle Wagner is good girl Gina and she also inexplicably wears flats, something that a character like Gina would never do. She feels fat, unattractive, uninteresting to her husband Gordy, and is nervous about seeing her old high school classmates. Would she really magnify that insecurity by wearing shoes that make her appear as frumpy as an old-school spinster librarian? She’s supposed to be 28 years old, not 58, and she would make the most of her appearance.
Wagner manages the character’s discontent well, never letting it sink into self-pity. Where the material lets her down is in its conception of her indifferent 1950′s-style marriage to Gordy, played by Mike Irizarry. Their badinage is second rate Honeymooners, and about as believable for 1989 as it would be for 2012. When he does an about-face late in the game and starts showing her some affection, their love scene and its resolution feel unearned.
Gina’s dizzy best friend Jenn is given real dimension and fire by Jordan Kai Burnett, who puts her own spin on the Working Girl character. She even brings humor and plausibility (or at least plausible deniability) to a mistaken identity plotline where the nerdy Ronny (Johnny Cannizzaro) pretends to be an Italian named Ronaldo who speaks little English. “I’m way more attractive when you don’t understand what I’m saying,” she quips, also observing, “You’re like a deaf Prince Charming and I’m a white noise Cinderella.” She sings well and is the one performer who gets a great costume, managing to straddle the line between looking pretty and looking ridiculous in her 80′s party dress. Cannizzaro is also effective, moving with a delicacy and lightness that helps him make the most of his broad comic transitions between hopeless high school nerd and ersatz Italian. They are the couple you root for, not the least of which because they are the one couple that has a spark of sexual electricity. “How do I tell him, ‘You’ve got me wet’ in pantomime?” she sings. And you believe her.
The backstory for the other two characters is a secret gay romance between the handsome closeted jock Smitty (Mark Shunock) and the artistic Tommy (Matt Valle) who ends up being the narrative lynchpin of the show, as well as the one mystery: Will he show up to the reunion? Is he even alive? Dodson’s dialogue and lyrics show real sensitivity here. When Tommy tries to give him the ring (that gets the plot going in the first place) to mark their six month anniversary, Smitty is taken aback but not cruel. “You and me is great, Tommy, but this isn’t a ring thing.” Valle is unusually good at being sung at—a very useful trick to have up one’s sleeve in musical theater, where one performer often sings his love to another performer who just has to stand there and take it. Shunock is affable and appealing, and the best number in the show is one where he and Valle share a love song with a female beard.
Director Joshua Finkel, who also choreographs, is working with a small space, but that shouldn’t preclude juicing things up with movement and buoyancy. Under Finkel’s hand, too often the production feels inert. The numbers begin and end with little sense of physical theatricality or flair. He is good with the actors, evidently valuing emotional specificity and honesty over caricature, but musicals need showmanship too. They also need visual appeal. Michael Hoffman’s scenic design is unimaginative while Kimberly Overton’s costumes are unflattering and, for the men, do not evoke any particular style or era. There is no differentiation in the costumes between the scenes in 1989 and 1979—no added or subtracted accessories, no quick change surprises—and I think this is a mistake.
The small band under the musical direction of Ross Källing gives a big bang for the buck, providing form and variety to Fleishman’s songs. They are a great example of how ingenuity can trump a tiny budget—and could serve as a lesson to the Academy for New Musical Theatre with regard to their technical efforts. But make no mistake, they have a lot to be proud of here. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be so much to work on. This is their first full production of a new work. That it shows real potential is a small, happy miracle.
photos by Bill Johnson
A Ring in Brooklyn
The NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood (Los Angeles Theater)
through September 2, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.anmt.org/