"Glory Days": World Premiere Musical at Signature Theatre

SHOW INFORMATION:  Glory Days plays at the Signature Theatre in Virginia through February 17; Tues – Weds at 7:30PM, Thurs – Fri at 8PM, Sat at 2PM & 8PM , and Sun at 2PM & 7PM.  Tickets are $60 - $69, Full Price; $55 - $64, Dress Circle; $29.50 - $34.00.  For information and tickets go to www.signature-theatre.org

◊◊◊◊ out of five.  Adult language and themes.  85 minutes, no intermission.

Musicals seem to come in groups – the self-aware musical comedy, the jukebox musical, the "girl power" musical.  Now, we seem to be in the high school musical phase.  Of course, those of us lucky enough to have survived that era of our lives can tell those of you how haven't gotten there (or are in the midst of it) that the time is full of drama, self-doubt, stupid choices, and is, in retrospect, a pretty easy time.  Perfect for a musical right?  Well, it seems so, given the glorification of that adolescent rite of passage, Disney's High School Musical, which has taken all media by storm, and the high profile bare: a pop opera and Spring Awakening, all about actually being in high school.  Now comes Glory Days, a pop/rock/Broadway musical all about high school, one year out, which opened its world premiere engagement this week at the Signature Theatre in Virginia.  Written by local guys Nick Blaemire (Broadway's Cry-Baby, the National Tour of Altar Boyz) and James Gardiner (several appearances at Signature Theatre), this first musical by this exciting team will be one that people will talk about when these two make it big, and they will.  Trust me; these young men are going places, so get in on the ground floor, as they say.

Glory Days chronicles the reunion of four high school best friends, one year after graduation.  They have gathered to commit a prank as payback for the event which ultimately brought them together five years earlier.  I won't spoil what that event was, but I will say it will sound kind of minor, but when the characters are remembering it from a ninth grader's perspective, the embarrassment is still very real and painful.  And this shows just how in tune the writers are.  Naturally, the four young men are distinct people, but it is immediately clear why the four of them are bonded for life – these are the guys in high school the popular kids picked on, but survived.  Thankfully, none of the four are blatant stereotypes, another clue to the quality of the writing.  Will, the introspective writer of the group, clings to the past with a desperation that suggests that he fears the worst – that he has peaked in high school.  He cherishes the bond the four have, but realizes that inevitable change might change that bond.  Andy, also Will's college roommate, comes from a long line of athletes, but he never quite reached the status accorded such guys.  Loud mouthed and somewhat crude, his interests include how many girls he can sleep with and the fraternity he has joined.  There is much more going on underneath the surface with Andy, and when it finally gets out in the open one can see that the old adage is true – never judge a book by its cover.  Skip, the former Army brat, also had trouble fitting in, and he seems to be the one of the four most easily adjusting to growing up – he trades in being outspoken for being introspective, and has developed a very mature acceptance of all things different then he.  But, even though this has proven a relatively easy transition for him, one senses that these guys will always be close to him, no matter how much work it takes to keep it so.  Finally, there is Jack, always suffering from "little guy" syndrome, who found a family in these buddies of his.  But, like in all families, Jack has a few secrets that he is just now willing to share.  All four have, to varying degrees grown, and just like the event that brought them together in the first place, the events of this reunion will change their lives forever.

It might be easy for some to simply dismiss the show simply because of its subject matter, but to do so would be a serious mistake.  For a first musical, heck for any musical, Mr. Blaemire and Mr. Gardiner have fashioned a work that gives you access by showing us the familiar: types of guys we all know, tons of pop culture references, and some now conventional plot twists (one of the characters comes out of the closet). But that is what gets you into the story.  What keeps you there are the spot on observations about their own generation, and the very realistic, if decidedly more messy depiction of friends in turmoil.  Glory Days does not fade out on a pat ending – we are left wondering how things turn out, but we are also left with a pleasantly optimistic outlook for their future.  There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye, and that gives you something to chew on while you are there, and much to ponder in the hours after the curtain call.

Gardiner's book is pretty much fat-free, and doesn't take chronological liberties, which a more "artsy" take on the same subject matter might.  It is a wise choice.  These people are 19 and still pretty concrete in their thinking, which is also portrayed nicely in his dialogue, spot on and endlessly clever – not clever in that "I am writing the book of a musical, aren't I smart?" way, but in that clever way guys do, influenced by each other, surges of testosterone, and years spent in front of the television and computer screen.  Blaemire's songs match the accuracy of the book, and are extremely tight to each character.  Each song is unique and similar, in that each is different for what is going on in the moment, but similar in that Blaemire, like other theatre composers, has his voice stamped onto each number in that same way that you can tell instantly a song by Sondheim or Kander and Ebb.  His influences are clearly contemporary music, and a variety of theatre writers including William Finn and Jonathan Larson.  Both young men are well on their way to creating their own brand of theatre.  Sure it is a little rough around the edges, and there are a few places where a little more depth would add a lot to the show, but their simplicity combined with their complexity and their willingness to be influenced by masters of the craft while finding themselves bodes well for a long, successful career. 

Given that the entire show takes place on one set of bleachers out on a suburban high school football field (designed by James Kronzer) it is a credit to all concerned that the show never feels static or worse, repetitive.  Director Eric Schaeffer has created countless realistic ways to get these guys to move around the levels of the bleachers.  Not once does their movement seem unmotivated or stagy, and the permutations of ways to situate them so that we can see them are many.   The theatricality of the lighting (designed by Mark Lanks) is in sharp contrast to the realism of the staging and setting.  Dominated by a wall of stadium lights, the songs are punctuated with shapes and patterns on the wall of lights and moody stage lighting.  Only when the guys are having conversation are the lights natural for an evening get together.  This device works quite well, adding to the ebb and flow of emotions.  

The four young men of the company are excellently cast, and are an ensemble in the very truest sense of the word.  Their rapport and ease with each other indicates a sincere bond between them as characters AND actors.  It is that intangible "thing" that elevates the piece.  Any one of the four has the talent to carry a show, so it is a testament to them that they easily coalesce.   

As Will our narrator, Steven Booth is interesting to watch as he shows us Will's shy introversion and observation in the opening number "My Three Best Friends," a wordy expository number, paired with a growing Will, resigned to change, but with optimism on the closing number, "My Next Story."  In between those book ends, Booth navigates the rough waters of group leadership, relinquishing steadfast beliefs, refereeing arguments and some very personal events which put him in a damned if you do/damned if you don't situation.  Will's earnestness and care for the others make him a likable character and Booth's portrayal endears him to your heart. 

As Andy, Andrew C. Call is visually perfect for the role - a hulking mass of muscle and testosterone.  His slightly vague expression and hyper-sexual body movements easily convey a dim, macho man, confident in his prowess with the ladies.  Of course, we all know it is a shield to hide insecurities and lacklustre "performance" that guys like this really have.  But Call's portrayal digs far beyond that surface, and he gives an astonishingly nuanced performance throughout, so that when he finally breaks and lets the emotions flow in "My Turn," the years of keeping quiet and the torment that he feels that even amongst these odd balls he doesn't really fit in, it actually makes sense and finds one empathizing rather than wondering where the heck did that come from.  Finally, Mr. Call is given the rare opportunity (at least these days) to portray one of the most honest reactions to finding out a loved one is gay I've seen in years.  Andy is strong enough to admit he has a problem with it, for a variety of reasons.  And it forces him to make a very difficult, but most adult decision.  A less impressive actor would stomp around like a dumb-jock Neanderthal, but not Mr. Call.  He is more than impressive here.  

Jesse JP Johnson is Jack, the friend who finally feels free enough to come out to his friends, and he plays the part with sincerity and infinite warmth.  Not once does he lapse into any stereotype, and his genuine concern for his friends, rather than a self-absorbed "don't hate me" take is refreshing.  While a gay character is rather expected, Johnson's "I'm like everyone else" acting shows us instantly why Jack bonded so well with the guys in the first place, and why they gave him the strength to reveal the truth.  His heartbreak at Andy's reaction is shared by everyone in the room.  Jack's big solo, "Open Road" is beautifully sung, and actually made the coming out a surprise.  When he and Andy confront each other in the musical argument "Other Human Beings," it is gut wrenching to see to best friends try to destroy each other just enough to save face. 

Finally, Adam Halpin, as Skip, plays the least stereotypical type in the cast with a calm that is as mysterious as his sly smile.  His  big solo, "Generation Apathy," reveals him as the wizened friend who comes back the most grown up, and the number shows a profound understanding of this age group's place in the scheme of things, both by the character and the writers.  Ultimately, Skip becomes a reluctant peace keeper, but not before he pays tribute to his younger glory days by helping to make the prank they have all come for happen.  I think his role is probably the most difficult because it is the least recognizable from any high school stereotype.  Mr. Halpin is certainly up to the challenge. 

All four young actors have excellent voices, and when they sing together ("Are You Ready?" "Right Here" and best of all, "The Good Old Glory Type Days"), the harmonies are, well, glorious.  They have created a group of people you care about and want to know (and maybe even regret ignoring when you were in high school).   Most refreshing is that the writers have gone into some relatively uncharted waters with a musical about real male bonding and honest friendship.  It may very well be the first time on stage where one guy says to another, "I love you," that isn't sexual or familial.  It's about that elusive thing – real emotion between grown men.  Perhaps that is the greatest glory of this terrific new musical.

 

PHOTOS: The World Premiere production of Glory Days courtesy of Signature Theatre, by Scott Suchman.  TOP to BOTTOM: The Cast of Glory Days; Steven Booth as Will; Andrew C. Hall as Andy; Jesse JP Johnson as Jack; Adam Halpin as Skip; and The Cast of Glory Days.

 



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