Saturday, March 11, 2006

opening-night review of *Life 101: A New Musical*

at the Civic’s Studio Theatre through April 1

Like an undergraduate essay that’s too much in love with big words and big ideas while still showing some potential, *Life 101* displays some pleasant musical numbers but isn’t nearly as profound as it would like to be.

Donovan Stohlberg and Yvonne A.K. Johnson’s book sets up its premise with stereotypes, stretches them through predictable situations and clutters its second act with a series of unconvincing emotional revelations. When death comes to the forefront near the finale, you can hear the gears of soap opera clanking. On the other hand, Stohlberg — in combination with L.B. Hamilton’s lyrics — knows how to write an affecting love ballad, and Johnson’s energetic direction packs a lot of business into the small confines of the Studio Theatre (proving that musicals can work downstairs at the Civic). But even the best parts of this Life don’t add up to a very satisfying whole.

It’s an uneven evening, all right. *Life 101* takes us to London on a study tour — only this particular pack of students are majoring in Stereotype Studies. Characterizations include the loner, the nerd, the arrogant guy and his love interest, the jock, the romantic ditz and the sorority girl.

From the opening number, “Today Is the Day” (which is reprised as the finale), it’s clear that this show’s characters are entirely too convinced that they’re about to have a really, really profound life experience. (It’s the first of several eye-rolling moments.) But even during this opening song, Johnson coordinates lots of varied movement while the four men singing the male student roles harmonize well.

The leading couple bicker about their writing projects — they’re at odds both romantically and academically — but the stakes aren’t clear: Who mimicked whose ideas when, and why is all that supposed to matter?

Midway through Act One, Stohlberg and Hamilton have written a kind of self-assertive feminist ballad for the leading lady (Kendra Kimball) that’s one of the show’s stronger moments. Her bravado is just a front, she’s yearning for the truth, intends to trust her own insights from here on out — a bit preachy, perhaps, but a well-constructed tune that Kimball delivers with conviction.

Johnson cleverly sets up one scene as choir practice — and just when we think we’re used to the convention, all five choristers turn on the arrogant writer and lecture him in song. It’s a surprising, funny moment that doesn’t take itself too seriously, unlike so much of this show.

What follows, unfortunately, is a let’s-get-the-nerd-drunk scene, tee-hee. We can see what’s coming for miles. Michele Whalen’s choreography stoops to being conventional here — the women’s assertive tabletop dancing had been effective before, but not here — though it’s true that she and Johnson create some nicely increasing intensity and fervor as the students consume more and more Guinness.

But just like life itself, *Life 101* has its temporary triumphs, its momentary embarrassments. The first-act curtain song, “In Those Eyes” is a nice love song, sung by Vinson as he’s getting all gooey over Emily again.

Conductor and keyboardist Gary Laing injects energy throughout, displaying particular skill in the entr’acte. Which would be a pleasant diversion, except that, having set up all these one-note characters, *Life 101* devotes its second act to piling up one attempt at an unexpected reversal after another. But it’s too much, too quickly. Gender bias, economic disparities, insecurity, moral failings, disease — no TV-movie crisis is spared as this Life hurtles toward one emotional catharsis after another.

The best voice in the cast belongs to Tony Caprile as Professor Ryan, who sings engagingly, hopefully, even if his solo (“When Night Calls”) is undercut by schmaltz. First Caprile is asked to be *Paper Chase* haughty, then he’s in a join-hands-and-twirl dance number, then he’s tugging tragically, so tragically at our heartstrings.

And yet just before all that — not terribly well prepared for — comes another of Stohlberg and Hamilton’s affecting ballads (“If we can’t have tomorrow, will you give me today?”) with a lovely melody, sold powerfully onstage (especially by Kimball) and adding up to … an overly rapid reconciliation of the focal couple.

It’s back and forth like that all night long: some affecting moments and promising episodes spread out among too many long and *meaningful* dramatic scenes.

*Life 101* needs a remedial class or two before it’ll be ready for upper-division course work, let alone the tenure track. •

(The Thursday, March 16, revision of this review in *The Pacific Northwest Inlander* will include comments on the literary allusions in *Life 101,* about a self-referential number early in Act Two, and about the very different emotional origins of two of the first-act numbers, "Tell Me" and "Simple As They Seem.")

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