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Theatre in Review: Between the Lines (Tony Kiser Theater)

Arielle Jacobs, Jake David Smith. Photo: Matt Murphy

In the second act of Between the Lines, Delilah, the literature-besotted heroine, becomes trapped -- literally -- inside a fantasy novel, with no obvious means of escape. I think I know how she feels, having watched the cast of Between the Lines try to make sense of the musical's overextended and rather casually plotted libretto. The new show at the Kiser is by no means terrible -- it has flashes of wit, some catchy songs, nifty design touches, and one of the most appealing casts in town -- but it is also hugely derivative, seemingly assembled from a teen musical kit of parts. Its fanciful story is built on a shaky foundation, making it difficult to go along with its imaginative premise; it practically invites you to pick it apart.

Between the Lines is also the name of a fairy-tale novella, privately published by a famous writer as a gift for her son. Only a single copy exists and how it ends up in the hands of seventeen-year-old Delilah is one of the many points that don't bear examination in Timothy Allen McDonald's book. (The show is based on a novel by best-seller Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha van Leer.) Delilah has a world of worry to distract her: Her father has run off with his yoga instructor. Her mother, reduced to working as a maid, is consumed with her nursing studies. Money is tight and eviction notices are delivered with alarming regularity. Having been forced to change schools, Delilah has become an instant social outcast. (It doesn't help that she damaged the knee of Allie, the local queen bee, in a softball accident.) At one point, she even takes a dangerous fall from the roof of her house. She's a regular Evan Hansen, that one.

With all that on her plate, it's no wonder that Delilah needs some escape reading. But Between the Lines struggles to explain how a smart girl, familiar with Dostoyevsky and opinionated enough to dismiss The Great Gatsby as "a telenovela for the one percent" -- "Wow, that's some Michiko Kakutani-level criticism," says the school librarian -- would become obsessed with a stray piece of kid literature. Or that she would develop a crush on Prince Oliver, the book's beautifully illustrated hero. Or that, opening the book and finding someone has scrawled "Help" on a page, she would immediately conclude that Oliver is sending her messages of distress. "The book had changed right before my eyes," she says. "Either I had a ministroke, or a fairytale prince just sent me an SOS."

Indeed, Oliver is unhappy with his lot. Possessed of the ability to reach out to living readers, he confesses his dilemma: "Everyone here seems happy living the lives that have been written for them. I'd give anything to change my story." Because Delilah is of a similar mind, they are soon spending plenty of time together, with her even briefly entering the world of the book. But Between the Lines makes clear that dating a fictional character does nothing for one's social life or family relations. And, of course, Delilah, who can't even get her father on the phone, has chosen the ultimate unavailable man.

Thanks to such explorations of the high school jungle as Mean Girls, Be More Chill, The Prom, Dear Evan Hansen, Clueless, and, if you want to toss in middle school, Trevor -- Delilah's troubles are wearily overfamiliar. At least, however, they're written with a certain snap and vigor; when the focus shifts to the fairytale world, the show's invention dries up. Songwriters Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson try a comic approach in "Happily Ever After Hour," showing everyone kicking back with cocktails after a hard day's work, but the characters are too generic -- among them, a princess, an evil queen, a wizard -- to claim one's interest. A tedious, time-eating subplot about the princess being chased by a sort of half-man/half-dog -- the plot of the fairy tale is exceedingly vague -- seemingly exists to give the gifted dancer Will Burton something to do.

Indeed, Between the Lines is all over the place, a mishmash of realistic and fantastic elements that never coalesces. Delilah has a charming introductory number, "Another Chapter," and an amusing duet with Oliver, "In My Perfect World," in which she instructs him that, in real life, men love staying home and raising kids while their wives pursue careers. (He thinks this arrangement is splendid.) "Inner Thoughts" is a deft spoof of the things that teens dare not say for fear of making themselves pariahs. All of these, and "Do It for You," by a trio of mermaids - don't ask -- work a catchy soft pop sound with occasional hints of disco. But the song list is also packed with disposable items, including "Mr. Darcy," in which that librarian waxes romantic over Jane Austen's most popular male character, and "Crazy Chemistry," a bizarre classroom interlude that lamely sets up a fight between Delilah and Allie. These contribute to the show's overlength; at the point when I thought Between the Lines was over, it turned out that there were half a dozen numbers to go.

That Jeff Calhoun's handsome production remains watchable is due in large part to the cast, most of whom take two or more roles. Arielle Jacobs, a veteran replacement in several Broadway shows, stakes her claim here as Delilah, combining brains, a winning vulnerability, and a voice that reaches to the back wall of the theatre and beyond; she is clearly going places. Jake David Smith lends enormous charisma and warmth to the unidimensional role of Prince Oliver. As Delilah's mother, Julia Murney cuts through the fairy dust, creating a credibly troubled, conflicted woman facing life challenges she never expected. As the non-binary student who befriends Delilah, Wren Rivera knows how to low-ball a wisecrack. ("For the record? If Allie was on fire, and I had a glass of water, I'd drink it.") At the performance I attended, the terrifying Allie ("Putin in Prada") and an entitled storybook princess was played by Aubrey Matalon, who confidently bagged all her laughs. The great Vicki Lewis sails through all five of her roles with her customary elan.

The design team blesses the production with its own touch of the fantastic. Tobin Ost's book-lined set contains an upstage screen on which Caite Hevner projects images of pages; behind the screen, carefully lit by Jason Lyons, we see tableaux of characters in jewel-toned costumes by Gregg Barnes. Here and elsewhere, the designers collaborate effectively, nimbly skipping between two worlds. Ken Travis' sound design captures key aspects of Greg Anthony Rassen's orchestrations while making sure that the lyrics remain intelligible.

Still Between the Lines has a way of sneaking up on one with a wicked, out-of-left-field joke. For example, Prince Oliver admits to his fellow characters that he has fallen for one of the book's readers, causing somebody to gasp, "Oliver! Our readers are children!" And McDonald, Samsel, and Anderson arrange a satisfying finale for Delilah that bodes well for her future on both the professional and romantic fronts. As it stands, however, Between the Lines -- which obviously has an eye on a commercial future -- is too cluttered with irrelevancies and picked-over ideas. Some ruthless cutting is in order, along with a rethink of certain aspects. As Delilah should know, great books aren't written; they're rewritten. --David Barbour

(12 July 2022)

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