BWW Review: HELL ON EARTH-A NEW MUSICAL (ABOUT MIDDLE SCHOOL) At Feinstein's/54 Below Delivers Grown-up Entertainment Out Of The Mouths Of Babes!
Heigh-Ho, My Rainbow Tribe! Bobby Patrick your RAINBOW Reviewer here. Putting the silent T in CABARET to bring you all the T.
"Why yes, Mr. Editor... I would just LOVE to take myself to Feinstein's/54 Below at 11:30 PM on MY Saturday night to see a bunch of teens perform a new, original musical about being a bunch of teens trying to make the transition from middle school to high school. That just sounds like so much... fun, Boss." So went the commentary in Our head this past week when We took the assignment to review HELL ON EARTH-A NEW MUSICAL (ABOUT MIDDLE SCHOOL) At Feinstein's/54 Below. And Holy High School Musical Batman, are we ever glad we did! HELL ON EARTH is the musical brainchild of book & lyric writer Shawn Ryan and composer Michael Sobie as developed for (and with) their students at the Young Actors' Theatre Camp. "BOBBY! WAIT! What in all the Be More Chill is the Young Actors' Theatre Camp?!" I hear you ask... Well, it's just what the name implies. YATC (pronounced by those in the know like attic, with a Y) is a young people's theatre training experience located in the Bay Area of Northern CA. Founded by Ryan and John Ainsworth, YATC conducts overnight camp programs in the summer and winter months as well as a variety of weekend workshops, masterclasses, and field trips throughout the year all for young people ages 8-18 offering them mentorships with celebrity professionals like Sutton Foster, Darren Criss, Idina Menzel, Jeremy Jordan, and Laurie Metcalf. Many of the camp's alumni have gone on to become working professionals including Tony Award Winner Ari'el Stachel of The Band's Visit.
Now, about HELL ON EARTH. Forced to start half an hour late owing to Scott Siegel's 54 SINGS BROADWAY'S GREATEST HITS running long, and a completely sold-out house needing to be seated, one would almost lose hope that, at that late hour, ANY show would be able to keep us awake at all. But any game soldiers that waited through the delays, got a real treat for their travails. Near midnight the stage began to fill with a veritable horde of adolescence. A cast of 20 something Teensomethings took the stage to belt out the show's title song and start us off with a bang. Individually these young people all have talent in abundance because as a group/chorus, they raised the F54B roof to new heights. This 70-minute concert version of the musical had teensters in HELL ON EARTH t-shirts moving on and off the stage and up to mics to present a story centered around "The Heavenly 7," a group of Brooksville Middle Schoolers led by golden-voiced Samantha Belding as Caroline, being launched into their high school experience with all the excitement, angst and anxiety that entails. Touching on adolescently confusing adult themes of growing up too fast, sex, sexuality, and gender with a liberal cocktail shaker of underage drinking poured in for good measure, we were shocked at the maturity of the performers in handling material that, back in the day, would have had mothers yanking their teens off stage and right into the next prayer meeting (kudos to YATC parents for their support of their children's diversity). In the touchingly funny trio I'M IN LOVE, guest star, and teen Broadway veteran, Anthony Rosenthal's Simon sings with Bridget and Gilbert - wonderfully played and sung by Adam Fallick and Elizabeth Nelson - about being the boy in love with the girl who's in love with the gay boy -- all three longing for the one they can't have, but, at one point, hilariously musing about the maybe of a modern-day thruple. These kids today, am I right, dearlings? Add to that Act II's lesbian love song THE FIRST TIME I FELL IN LOVE between big-voiced Ava Frances' Ollie and standout talent Lauren Monaco's Denny, and the whole thing became jaw-droppingly adult and current. In an interesting turn of events the show's creators, Ryan & Sobie took on the sweetly lilting Act II ballad FERN FIELDS. There is always something special about songwriters performing their own music. It touches the artist's heart in ways that touch the audience without fail. Another treat of the night was SCROLL, the ensemble's ode to their cell phones and their "Love, Like & Scroll" lives. Additional standouts included the character, Lissa Peterson's pean to pooping in public; WORLD'S GREATEST FEAR performed by the exceptional Anna Sieben and Dahlia's gorgeous PRETTY PART by the hauntingly mature-voiced Emily Doran who left us pulling on our ears wondering how what we had just heard was the voice of a teen.
To be honest, the story, the music, and the cast were so engaging, it was a real disappointment to follow the scenes and song list in the program and find that numbers had to be cut and the book abbreviated to accommodate the time limit. We're not sure who set that limit on this performance, but we wish they hadn't because the audience was still all in even past 1 AM when cameo guest star, Laurie Metcalf (the coolest stage, screen and television star of them all) made her appearance as the terminally confused Ms. Procter. Metcalf, listed amongst the artists that teach master classes for YATC, showed she was also all in for the kids by dropping in for a 2-3 minute bit at the end of the show in the middle of the night! YOU GO, JACKIE CONNER!
So much of the show's heart and humor landed perfectly with the audience on the night and felt so hip and current, along with being toe-tappingly enjoyable, touching and funny, it is a sincere wish that HELL ON EARTH can pull a BE MORE CHILL and find life beyond the YATC summer camp and concert stages and F/54B. In all, the engaging realness and pathos of HELL ON EARTH-A NEW MUSICAL (ABOUT MIDDLE SCHOOL) beats the fantasy and foolery of its F/54B (and then Broadway) predecessor, BE MORE CHILL by a mile, and it is our sincere wish that this new musical for young people will blossom and grow just like the students fostered by the Young Actors Theatre Camp, and for those hopes, we give HELL ON EARTH-A NEW MUSICAL (ABOUT MIDDLE SCHOOL) 4 ½ Rainbows out of 5.
* All Photos By My Boss, Stephen Mosher
The Very Talented Cast of HELL ON EARTH:
** Special Celebrity Cast Members