BWW Reviews: Give in to Your Nerdy Side with BAND GEEKS at Broadway Rose
Happy teenagers apparently don't grow up to be writers. The current explosion of young adult novels (and films based on them), teen-centered television shows, and musicals aiming at the younger crowd seems to have one basic theme: the kid who feels alienated and shut out from the "in" crowd, yet learns to overcome the teasing and abuse to become happy in his or her own skin. This can be metaphorical, as in the Twilight and Hunger Games series, or literal, as in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Spectacular Now. My favorite is Paul Feig's long-departed television show Freaks and Geeks, which takes place in a Detroit suburb around 1980. Of course, I grew up in suburban Detroit around that time, and I even competed against Mr. Feig in high-school forensics (he cleaned my clock repeatedly), so perhaps I'm biased, but Freaks and Geeks is so emotionally accurate it's hard to watch.
Band Geeks is not on that level. It's the kind of show you start out scoffing at for its simple-minded depiction of teenage problems, but the darn thing sneaks up on you, and you walk out cheering. It owes a debt to Glee, of course, and Jason Robert Brown's 13, but it has its own charms. The plot is not original: shy flutist Laura has feelings for her best pal, tuba player Elliott, who has a crush on baton twirler Nicole, who only has eyes for drummer Jake, who's mad because he'd rather be playing football. Meanwhile, the band director is trying to keep the principal from pulling the plug on the band altogether, and the only way to save the funding is to do well at the big Ohio State Marching Band Competition.
Still with me? There are some funny moments here and there, but each of the characters has been assigned exactly one personality trait; one kid is a goth, one is gay, one is from Eastern Europe...you get the picture. The running gags are groaners, but over the length of the performance the actors are so warm and likable that it's impossible to resist them. Likewise, the songs are for the most part the bland pop that seems to dominate musical theater these days, with wordy lyrics that don't sit well on the music, and the melodies run together over the course of the show.
Director Isaac Lamb has not only made the best of these failings, he's embraced them. The show is unapologetically nerdy, and the cast is all but winking at the audience throughout. While Dan Murphy's choreography isn't much more than people moving in patterns (no one's really dancing; especially while holding musical instruments), it keeps the show bouncing along, and the actors keep smiling.
The standouts among the young cast include Danielle Purdy as levelheaded Laura; she's got a powerful voice and a fine personality, though the song that refers to her as "plain" is totally inaccurate. Zach Cossman has a few surprises as jock-turned-drummer Jake, taking the plot seriously and showing a little of the pain underneath the breezy storyline. I also liked Peter Liptak as trumpeter Spitz, who was stuck with a lot of "yo, bro" dialogue but still managed to come across as intelligent and likable.
Amy Jo Halliday, one of our best musical theater performers, was wasted in the tiny role of the principal, but Joe Thiessen was outsanding as the band director, exuding calm and professionalism throughout. He also had the luck to get the show's one outstanding song, "If I Had a Stage," which took on the grownup feelings of regret and waning hope, and he sang it with pure feeling.
Band Geeks doesn't pretend to be Sondheim or O'Neill. It's a sweet, inoffensive show about teens and their problems. We've all been teenagers, so we all get it. But I'd love to see Broadway Rose tackle something a little deeper next time.