Theatre in Review: The Mad Ones (Prospect Theater Company/59E59)
Sam, the young heroine of The Mad Ones, is supposed to be driving herself to college, where she is to begin her freshman year; instead, she is sitting in the driver's seat, unable to put the key into the ignition. At times, during its first half, The Mad Ones seems to be similarly unable to get going, as it circles around Sam's dilemma without giving away too much information too soon. In this case, however, patience is rewarded: As this original, imaginative piece slips into first gear, Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, the authors and composers, lay bare Sam's dilemma with considerable tenderness and wit.
Indeed, the whole of The Mad Ones unfolds in Sam's memory in the split second when she hesitates over starting the car (and, by extension, a new life). Sam was her class valedictorian, bound for college glory, thanks to her considerable smarts and a mother, herself an academic, who drives her to succeed. Beverly, the mother, is one of three semi-opposing influences. Sam has a boyfriend, Adam, whose only ambition is to take over his father's tire store; while Sam is close to Adam, she is even closer to Kelly, the very model of a high school hellion, the kind of straight-C student who has no use for rules, who likes to cut classes, get in the car, and just drive -- and damn the destination. "She was the sun -- no, a supernova," Sam says. "And I was in orbit around her."
With three such attachments, it's little wonder that Sam is confused about her future. Beverly will accept nothing less than an Ivy League college for her daughter, especially if its name is Harvard. Kelly wants them both to go to the state school and continue to party on. Always in the background is Adam, ever attentive and ever aware that he isn't quite good enough for Sam. Adam may even understand that Kelly is the real love of Sam's life, if only because Sam -- who is tired of living up to expectations and whose favorite book is On the Road -- has romanticized her friend into a kind of Jack Kerouac character: "You don't have to conform to some metric of success. You have a car. You have gumption and, and, and drive, and -- I don't know -- Kelly Manning doesn't just do what everyone else does. She doesn't follow the same rules. She's otherworldly. She's one of the mad ones."
The first half of The Mad Ones is both intriguing and a little bit frustrating. It lays out its central situation repeatedly without really telling us enough about its characters. This is partly because the authors don't want to reveal too much about an accident that proves decisive in dictating everyone's fates, and which won't be revealed here. But it is also true that we don't learn very much about Kelly, except as seen through Sam's eyes. As a result, the situation feels a bit belabored -- how much drama can one wring from one young lady's college decision?
But the second half suddenly, sharply comes to life as Beverly, in a blistering number titled "Miles to Go," informs Sam that her Kerouac fantasies are neither original nor relevant in a world where the odds are still stacked against women: "The game has been rigged/But I learned to play/And I'm not the enemy/I paved the way/I stood in my own mother's kitchen/The door slammed behind me/I blink and I'm you again." This is followed by the plaintive "Say the Word," in which Sam urges Adam to ask her to stay home; "Moving On," a what-might-have-been number that depicts an alternate future for everyone had the accident not happened; and "Drive," in which Sam faces the truth and accepts the pain of it. All of the songs benefit from Lowdermilk's orchestrations -- for piano, guitar, harp, and violin -- which have the clarity and purity of spring water.
The director, Stephen Brackett, handles this material with sensitivity, keeping the first half from seeming too precious and zeroing in on the conflicts that drive the action to its conclusion. (Alexandra Beller has staged the numbers with understated skill.) Krystina Alabado is thoroughly convincing as Sam, who is bright, timid, and looking for a stronger, more confident self; she is especially good at capturing the character's ambivalence, her state of emotional suspension. Even if the script stints on the details of Kelly's life, Emma Hunton makes her seem like a fully rounded character; she also gives the show a jolt of energy each time she appears. Leah Hocking is dryly amusing as Beverly ("On the Road is what happens when you glorify the patriarchy," she notes, brooking no argument) and she sings heroically. Stepping in at the last moment for Ben Fankhauser, who is on extended vocal rest, Jay Armstrong Johnson wraps Adam's flannel shirt around his shoulders, inhabiting the character as if he had weeks of rehearsal.
Brackett has also obtained some striking and original work from his design team. Adam Rigg's set features a piece of a house floating over the stage and banks of car lights built into the upstage steps. David Lander's lighting shifts quickly and boldly from understated white-light washes to heavily saturated colors in sidelight positions. (Some of the colors are a little garish.) Alex Hawthorn's sound design is exactly as transparent as this intimate musical requires. Jessica Pabst's costumes are shrewdly designed to fit each character; one look at Sam and Kelly and you instantly know they are on different life tracks.
The Mad Ones is a small piece, and it takes some time to get going, but, on its own terms, it has some exquisite moments. Does Sam really understand Kelly, or has she made her into the friend she needs at a fraught moment in her life? The answer is surprisingly complex. Prospect Theater Company is dedicated to finding and supporting new musical theatre talents -- like Kerrigan and Lowdermilk. In The Mad Ones, they have exactly the kind of showcase that should take them to the next level. -- David Barbour