BWW Review: BECOMING NANCY Affirms That You Matter
One of my favorite conductors loved to say, "Music is art in real time." Theatre is definitely included in this statement. Blink and the moment is gone, and it's up to the quality of the art to determine whether or not you'll think about it later.
The Alliance Theatre's premiere run of new musical Becoming Nancy is art to think about later. From the very beginning, when David waves his handkerchief between the curtains, to the final all-cast harmonization of the "You Matter" reprise, this heart-tugging musical pulls you in and won't let you go, leaving you with much to process. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing it twice - once with my grandma and again with a friend in his twenties. The musical impacted both uniquely, which just goes to show its adaptability.
Based on the novel by Terry Ronald, this thought-provoking show is directed and choreographed by world-renowned Jerry Mitchell, Tony Award-winning director and choreographer of smash hits such as Legally Blonde, Pretty Woman: The Musical, and Kinky Boots. Set in the late seventies in London's southern suburb of East Dulwich, this musical follows high school senior David Starr (Zachary Sayle) as he's cast as Nancy in his school's production of Oliver! Not surprisingly, this doesn't go over well with his bigoted father and timid mother. Meanwhile, his friends are struggling with racist attacks and insensitive slurs, his mother is learning to be bolder, and David himself is grappling with the fact that he seems to be falling for the young football player acting opposite him. Jessica Vosk, Stephen Ashfield, and Sally Ann Triplett are each double cast as David's Aunt Val and Kate Bush, drama teacher Hamish McClarnon and Sting, and David's mom Kath and Debbie Harry, respectively.
Even the ensemble shines in this star-studded cast, Vosk just off a two-year run as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway alongside Jake Boyd (who plays the aforementioned football player, Maxie) as Fiyero. With music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe, and book by Elliot Davis, the numbers vary in emotion and pace from the toe-tapping introductory "East Dulwich" that firmly sets the show to the tear-inducing song that Kath Starr sings about carrying a child "six inches from your heart" and always keeping them there throughout the rest of your life. One of the most impactful songs also serves as the theme of the musical, entitled "You Matter" and sung by Hamish McClarnon to David after a heartbreaking scene, with the closing lines - "Sometimes your dreams may shatter, but never forget you matter" - leaving not a single eye dry. The homages to music of the seventies is spot on, with nods to David's three idols and ABBA, among others.
The music, although a vital part, is just one of the stellar aspects of the show which effortlessly pull the audience into the setting. The private school gymnasium set design. The posters of Kate Bush, Debbie Harry, and Sting on David's bedroom wall. The fabric prints that don't coordinate at all, yet still somehow work. Kudos to set designer David Rockwell and costume designer Amy Clark for creating such an enthralling setting.
No review would be complete without mentioning a few specific actors by name. Twenty-year-old Texas native and 2017 Jimmy Awards finalist Jasmine Rogers is mesmerizing in every single scene, but shines in her solo in the Brighton bar scene, shattering all riff expectations. Jake Boyd - who dazzled in the original Two River Theatre cast of Be More Chill - exemplifies the jock trope in Maxie Boswell but puts a unique, likeable spin on it, flawlessly portraying the character's inner torment. Lead Zachary Sayle steals every scene he's in, making it hard to watch anything else during his scenes because you literally can't take your eyes off of him. (I got to see him as Crutchie in the original touring cast of Newsies and, several local productions later, maintain that he's the only actor in the role who has made me cry.) Caleb Jensen as Jason Lancaster and Seth Clayton as Squirrel both effortlessly portray unlikable bully types on the stage but were some of the nicest actors to meet afterwards, taking time to make conversation with the patrons. And, no surprise here, Jessica Vosk is absolutely, impeccably, faultlessly flawless.
As far as Broadway potential, I wouldn't be surprised if this show made it all the way to the top. After all, the Alliance Theatre is no stranger to the great white way, having previously originated the Tony Award-nominated musicals Tuck Everlasting and The Prom (which recently closed but will be seen on the big screen in 2020 in a film adaptation starring James Corden, Meryl Streep, and Andrew Rannells). Every note hits perfectly, the pacing is rhythmically sound, and the show as a whole already feels like it could be in the Nederlander or the Longacre. The only facet of the show that could use a little tweaking is some of the patrons might not be able to understand some of the lines due to the accents combined with the quick pace of a few of the numbers. However, that doesn't stop the show from being anything less than exquisite.
With newer musicals tackling issues prevalent to and needed in our time - such as Mean Girls with taking a stand versus trying to fit in, Dear Evan Hansen with feeling like you don't matter, and Hadestown with greed and climate change - Becoming Nancy joins the rest as a timely lesson on bigotry, identity, and becoming who we really are.