BWW Review: CONTACT HIGH from Theater 511 Soars at Ars Nova
The whole of CONTACT HIGH from Theater 511 is greater than the sum of its parts, which is a good thing in light of this show's plethora of moving parts within its kaleidoscopic plot. The result is a timely coming-of-age pop-rock musical that tells a lyrical and satirical story of drug addiction, the need for human connection, and hope.
First, about that titular phenomenon: when sober people come into contact with someone who is under the influence of drugs, a supposed transfer of the physiological state of intoxication occurs. This is known as a contact high.
At its core, CONTACT HIGH shows how a friendship blossoms between two seniors at Plainview High School in Chicago, IL: Jean (Gabriella Marzetta), who uses and deals heroin; and Haley (Kyle Reid Hass) who has haphephobia, an intense fear of tangible human contact.
An unlikely pair, they bond by their limitations:
Jean: "Haley, I'm an addict. I've been addicted to heroin for two years. I couldn't survive if I left Landon. I'm trapped. That's why we understand each other, Haley. We're broken people. You can't be touched, and I can't get clean."
Why she can't leave Landon (her father) is explained later in the show. In the meantime, her devoted boyfriend, Benjamin (Jeremy Swanton) vies for her love--and admission to Princeton--via creative means: "I never imagined I'd be dealing drugs in exchange for an Ivy League education, but welcome to the 21st century."
Although Haley is portrayed as an outcast, he still represents a useful point of reference for his peers. The gay-and-gregarious Karen sings in "Voice of the Future":
WE ALL GET STRAIGHT A'S AND HALEY GETS DETENTIONS
HALEY'S THOUGHTS ARE OUT OF LINE
BUT EVERYTHING HE SAYS IS WHAT WE'RE SCARED OF SAYING
HALEY'S DOUBTS ARE ALSO MINE
THIS CAN'T BE THE VOICE OF THE FUTURE
WE SAY WHAT THEY'VE TRAINED US TO SAY HERE
I'M FEELING LIKE SUCH A DISGRACE NOW
I'M FEELING LIKE I SHOULDN'T STAY HERE
Additional high school classmates (members of the hyper-competitive Science Alliance) add diversity and personality to the Plainview tribe, channeling their groupthink effectively both against Haley and toward an upcoming science competition. One by one, the students come to realize that their dreams under construction may be thwarted by forces greater than themselves:
ABIGAIL (Iyana Colby): "College doesn't matter?"
KAREN: "No it matters, but it's not the only thing that matters."
ABIGAIL: "Whoa. Everything I've ever known is a lie."
In addition to its cheeky humor (E.B. Hinnant as dweeby Vice Principal Cole, Dana Norris as a dubious grief counselor), the show has its share of poignant moments. One of them transpires when Jean, who is trying to extract herself from her drug cartel connection as well as her heroin addiction, exits slowly up the aisles. Proximity allows us to see her pale neck and arms dotted with dark needle marks and purplish-yellow bruises. This color palette also defines the show's electric poster/playbill by Katherine Klimt Staller. Dark and light elements-neon yellow and purple-pop off of a black background like a bruise.
To say that Jean is the "poster girl" for CONTACT HIGH is not inaccurate. The poster boy is, well, that's more complicated. Walls framing the intimate stage at Ars Nova are covered with paper images of Tommy Wheeler, a curly-haired, handsome young man. But what at a glance looks like a student council campaign effort turns out to be yet another dark plot point: Tommy is MISSING, last seen a month ago leaving 8th period. Who is he? What happened to him? Who is responsible? Clues to these questions emerge slowly over the show's two-hour run time.
But unlike the paper posters where the teen's images are static, the teens in CONTACT HIGH the musical step (and dance) front and center to expose the raw deal they've been given: a youth culture cauldron brewing with isolation, graduation, addiction, competition, the promise of hope, the presence of fear, elusive validation...plus a possible murder, gun violence, mental illness, stigma, and clueless adults. Schoolhouse Rock this is not.
In two acts and 18 songs, the book, music and lyrics by Kyle Reid Hass and Jeremy Swanton aim high and cut deep, covering expansive emotional territory with somewhat of a whiplash effect. For example, although drug use is neither minimized nor glamorized, it evades gravitas in part because there's so much else swirling, dramatically. That being said, a standout number is "Nobody/Somebody," Jean's powerful haunting anthem about the pain of addiction and isolation. Also moving is "Prototype," as Haley clarifies for us that "I'm not alone, only one of a kind."
Both "The World and Its People" and "The Voice of the Future" are effective in setting up the conflict between the succeed-at-all-costs context in which these teens struggle, and the role they long to play, against all odds. Finally, "Capacity" reminds us that often an individual who may seem less than successful may be more than we could ever expect.
Co-Creator Jeremy Swanton says that "As 23-and-22-year-olds, we remember graduating high school not so long ago, and we've seen things grow even scarier for young people now than they were then. We're trying to write the musical we could have used in high school. We hope the show can inspire and bring hope to young people-that someone might come to the show and think, 'I'm not alone.'"
So to the theatrical teen angst canon currently populated by the likes of BE MORE CHILL, DEAR EVAN HANSEN, BRING IT ON and HEATHERS, we can add CONTACT HIGH, a raw off-Broadway rock musical that will likely resonate personally with young audiences and provide justified recognition to its creative team. And for the rest of us, it may provoke a healthy dose of empathy, nostalgia, and appreciation for its contact high.
The show runs through September 7th. Tickets are available online here.
The studio cast recording, CONTACT HIGH: A NEW MUSICAL, is available to stream on all platforms including Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, and more.
Photos: Kian Martinus