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Theatre in Review: Contact High (Theatre 511)

Gabriella Marzetta. Photo: Kian Martinus.

It is high time for musical theatre to graduate from high school; the creators of such shows have developed an unhealthy obsession with social pressures, sexual identity, popularity (or the lack of it), and all the other challenges facing the young adults of this world. What with the characters of Be More Chill, Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, and The Prom -- to name but a few -- all majoring in angst and alienation, we hardly need one more show dedicated to the proposition that adolescence is a living hell. And ever since the book and score of Carrie got reworked, it seems to turn up every month or two somewhere. Unlike the cast of Carrie, the characters of Contact High don't have to deal with telekinesis, pig's blood, or mass slaughter, but that doesn't mean they don't live lives of constant peril. Contact High plays like the most lurid CW teen-bait series; it's a four-lane pile-up of sudsy plot developments more likely to induce giggles than tears of empathy.

Among the characters in Contact High are Jean and Benjamin, young lovers and heroin dealers. Benjamin, who is hell-bent on getting into Princeton, combines his criminal activities with membership in the Eagle Scouts and National Honor Society. Jean has an all-too-personal connection to Landon, the drug king who employs them, and is herself addicted to heroin; she also has a jones for singing tortured ballads while shooting up. Haley Walter Keys is the school's resident genius -- "People like you come along once in a generation," Jean tells him -- but he suffers from haphephobia, a real-life condition that causes him to lash out violently against anyone who touches him. He has already beaten up one unlucky student and has gotten himself booted out of the school's Science Alliance. ("You don't try to blend in," Benjamin tells him. "To make any sense to the rest of us." He should talk, since his after-school job could nab him five years in the hoosegow.) This is a drag because Haley, who has a plan to be the big winner at the Illinois State Science Convention, suddenly has to fend for himself. Meanwhile, Tommy, another student, disappeared several weeks earlier and his trail has gone cold, so Karen, his great friend, has become a regular Veronica Mars, spearheading her own investigation.

Many things happen in Contact High, all of them equally implausible. There is much ado about Haley's science project, a machine designed to put the brakes on people's primal instincts, which looks like the concept version of R2D2. Landon assembles his minions and lectures them about the habits of prairie dogs before having an allegedly treacherous employee put to death. Jean apparently ODs, then bounces back to life in order to deliver a self-empowerment ballad with lyrics like "Life may not be trouble-free/But there has been a change in me/So bring on the pain/Who knows my full capacity/So tell 'em all where they can find me/Dancing in the rain." And keep your eye on Brandi, the creepily empathetic counselor, who often appears to be grilling her clients for information and who knows her way around a gun. Hanging over them all is the question of who is responsible for Tommy's disappearance: Could it be Landon or one of his gang? Or could Haley have run amok during one of his violent episodes?

It's all agony, all the time, and so straight-faced that you can't believe it isn't a spoof. Kyle Reid Hass and Jeremy Swanton, who collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics, pile on so many dysfunctions it's a miracle anyone makes it through algebra class. Contact High is billed as the show that "addresses the heroin epidemic among American high schoolers," but these overwrought gyrations have nothing to do with the real horror and suffering of drug addiction. The performances are almost entirely unfelt -- the tough-talking Jean, as played by Gabriella Marzetta, is the most robust addict going, and Hass, who plays Haley, barely seems traumatized -- with everyone relying on their admittedly impressive belting skills to indicate their deep, deep unhappiness. The songs are scaled more for volume than emotion or wit.

Among the cast members, Laura Thoresen has real presence and warmth as Karen, Dana Norris gets one's attention as the bizarre Brandi, and Iyana Colby introduces some welcome humor as a comic bundle of nerves who hangs out with the cool kids. No set designer is credited, but whoever came up with the idea of covering the theatre's walls with posters for the missing Tommy had the right idea; it's a strong, clever visual statement. The lighting, by Andrew Garvis, is okay; there's no indication who did the occasional projections, which are hard to make out. The sound system is hugely overscaled for this small space.

This last point is the key to a show that keeps insisting, loudly, on its own relevance. After a wild climax, which not everyone survives, Karen tells off the older generation at a school assembly, cueing an inspirational ballad in which the sadder-but-wiser student body insists, "War and pain and death/Will never vanish from the Earth/But when we hear the plea we'll all be free/And we will finally see each other's worth." (They also sing of "Seaching/For subconscious apprehensions/To the truth of our intentions/Where the inner child waits to be found.") Such sententiousness in the young is dispiriting; these kids need a major dose of irony in their collective diet. --David Barbour


(23 August 2019)

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