Musical 'Lunch' Has Potential, but Also Some Growing Pains

Shawn Northrip's Lunch--which is playing as part of the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival in DC--is a musical comedy, but as it follows a group of 13 year-old students at BenjaminFranklinMiddle School, it's also quite a melodrama.

The show, which addresses the pandemonium of raging hormones, the sweet torment of young love, and the not-so-sweet torment of friendships disturbed by young love, has a certain rawness and vitality.  Yet with an unfocused book and too much reliance on stereotype, Lunch's blemishes--dramatically speaking--call for some Neutrogena.

To his credit, Northrip has successfully channeled the energy and rebellious spirit of youth with his punk/ska/rock score, and also deserves plaudits for writing a wholly original musical (an endangered species in this day and age).  Although it would benefit from a dramaturgical makeover, the show—directed with verve by Shirley Serotsky--is also a genuine crowd-pleaser.

It's easy to relate to Lunch's young teens, all of whom are experiencing a time of life as complex as an origami love note passed in the hallway.  The show takes place in the cafeteria of Franklin Middle School, where Mophead leads his rock band through a number of faintly subversive songs and encourages the kids to vote for the king and queen of the upcoming "Jungle Love"-themed dance—which will usher the 8th graders from the zits and jitters of middle school into the somewhat less perilous (so they think) world of high school.  During the course of a school lunch, young couples fall in various states of like and love, break up, and play matchmaker.

Northrip's book is quite funny, and although his characters sometimes speak a bit precociously, he manages to evoke the mix of innocence, vulgarity and pseudo-sophistication of a 13 year-old's speech and behavior.  One girl expresses her shock that lunch should be anything but social: "I don't eat during lunch, I mingle."  He also captures the kind of hormonal chaos of those years.  As nerdy Brynn sings of how popular Anton and Kelly are the perfect couple—and compares them to the timeless lovers of "Dawson's Creek" and other WB shows—Anton pokes at one of Kelly's breasts, as if it was a sleeping animal in a cage.

While the score isn't extraordinarily accomplished (Mophead's songs succeed too well at sounding 8th grade-ish), numerous songs are vibrant with infectious melodies and funny lyrics.  The best number, though, is "For Mikey."  A bittersweet recollection of a wilted friendship, it's sung by Ben, who feels abandoned when his best friend begins spending all his time with his new girlfriend.  The scene between Ben and Mikey (who now, per his girlfriend's request, insists on being called Dmitri) is written with a pungent sincerity and the two characters feel as real as undoctored yearbook photos.

Yet none of the other characterization compares, unfortunately.  One song—"The Invocation"—in which four girls tap into the life-changing oracular power of a MASH game—is part of a scene that comes off as Mean Girls redux.  There's an uptight Mormon, a perky dumb girl, a shallow and spoiled teen princess, and an awkward and needy girl.  The show also has a popular girl, a nerdy couple, and a generically depressed misfit chick.

The scene with the latter is the most problematic.  Teen depression is certainly a serious reality, but Misty's song "Erase Me"—in which she expresses her desire to be an erasable drawing of a stick figure—comes out of nowhere.  There's no motivation for it, and no clear transition between this melancholy ballad and the joyous up-tempo that preceded it.  And due to the (rather confusing) decision to double cast actors for more than a dozen roles, the actress playing the "ugly" Misty looks exactly the same as she does when she's playing the attractive Diana (not that anyone ever bought Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy as plain, either).

Yet the show's biggest problem may be in that, with the exception of the Ben-Dmitri scene, Northrip affords us little opportunity to care about his characters. No sooner are we introduced to one set of students than another has replaced them; they only reappear during the rambunctious finale.  Lunch, with its unfocused series of vignettes, robs the audience of the chance to follow the arcs of a select group of characters—and mostly, to feel anything for the teens other than amusement and nostalgic identification.

Yet the large cast of actors is, overall, talented and tirelessly energetic.  A few flesh out their characters enough to be truly memorable.  Casie Platt, as the vivacious Kelly, performs "Spreading the Love" with a bright aura of adolescent dreaminess.  Tim Olson's "For Mikey" brims with expressiveness and emotional honesty, and Kevin Duffin's Mophead has charisma and attitude to spare.

Lunch will be seen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in September, and as Northrip is a talented young musical theatre writer, it might be worth catching there.  But in its current condition, Lunch is going through a bit of an awkward stage.  Let's hope Northrip can help his show through its growing pains.

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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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