When in doubt, check the kids out.
Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.
I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.
So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.
Why these two? I was thinking, partly, about the long haul, because we seem to be in for one, and where we might be heading in generational terms, and what the world might look like for today’s teens and kindergartners when they’re young adults, and so thinking about theater for and about young people seemed to make sense.
Plus, who doesn’t need a bit of an upper right around now? After catching Fly Guy I popped into my neighborhood bakery/coffee joint and, because the place was packed, grabbed a spot at the big communal table. A young dad and his maybe 2-year-old daughter sat across from me; he settled her into a booster seat and got her a glass of water. “They don’t have any tippies so you’re going to have to drink out of a big people’s glass,” he told her. “Do you think you can do that?” She grinned and nodded vigorously and took a sip and began to laugh. Then she leaned forward and he leaned down and they bumped noses and laughed again, and all at once, in the midst of a very tough week, the world seemed a better place.
Big people’s glasses, everybody. Some things just trump politics.
1980s Teen Musical, which had its first public viewings Friday and Saturday, has some work ahead of it but is exceedingly promising, a brash and witty show with good characters, catchy pop music, and a good story that falls somewhere in the vicinity of Glee, Hairspray, and old John Hughes movies: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles. It does it with a pretty broad wink: The action takes place in 1989 at John Hughes High School, where perpetual misfit Samantha is trying to step through the landmines of the school’s many cliques and somehow get herself voted friendliest kid in school, which would allow her (stick with me here) to ditch the joint and spend her senior year studying in Paris, far away from all the people she hates.
The show’s the product of a couple of experienced musical-theater hands, Mark LaPierre (book and lyrics) and Eric Nordin (music, with some also by LaPierre). It’s been workshopped by Staged!’s S! Conservatory, which trains actor/singers ages 15-19, and they’re a motivated lot, coming from all around the metropolitan area. The reading was obviously well-rehearsed (Diane Englert directed), with everyone on sheet music but familiar with the songs, and a tight four-piece band driving the action: Nordin and music director Eric Little on keyboards, Kyle Smith on guitar, Ruth Ginelle Heald on drums.
Everything keys to Samantha’s slow journey from sullen outsider to almost-gregarious insider (yes, there are complications: wouldn’t be a show without ’em), and Amy Martin acts and sings convincingly, providing a solid core. She’s surrounded by tight subgroups from models to dancers to rebels to jocks and more, little micro-units that need to be brought together on a big project, which just happens to involve Amy (Kaylee Bair), who seems to be really the best-liked kid in school. A cleverly handled show-within-the-show recounts the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac: well, why not? And then there are the Real Genius Nerds (Brendan Long, William Duff, Carson Welker), who collectively are, to use a technical term, a true kick in the pants.
The storyline can get a little muddied, especially in the early going, but it’s really just a matter of tightening and heightening what’s already here. All of those cliques can get a little tough to juggle, and a little more dialogue here and there to pull the story taut could help a lot. The show has two adults: Samantha’s mom, in a well-sketched and very funny performance by Lisamarie Harrison, and the school French teacher, Madame, who is played by the reliably fine Susannah Mars but is underwritten and hardly ever there. Madame could be built up, or the role could simply be doubled by the actor playing Mom. As it is, having someone like Mars in such a tiny role is a lost opportunity.
The point of a showcase at Fertile Ground is to get the thing on its feet in front of an audience and see where it stands. 1980’s Teen Musical is an appealing show that seems ready for the next step: some sharpening, a little more clarity, a little more attention to narrative drive. Keep your eye on it. This thing could take off.
Fly Guy does not shave in my shop, or swim in my soup: I didn’t know he existed until Oregon Children’s Theatre announced it was going to create a musical about him. Turns out, I’m really out of it. He’s the star of a series of kids’ books (25, if my quick count from Wikipedia is correct, including the tantalizingly titled There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Fly Guy) by Tedd Arnold, a writer you might also know for his tales of Huggly, or Bialosky, or Green Wilma. The youngish crowd jammed into the Newmark Theatre on Friday (“A hundred twenty from a single elementary school!” one of the ushers commented, and I turned out to be surrounded by a pack of ’em from Springville K-8) knew all about Fly Guy. He was an old friend, and they were ready to rock.
Fly Guy: The Musical is a co-commission by OCT and Bay Area Children’s Theatre in Oakland, and its book, music, and lyrics are all by the California company’s Austin Zumbro. Its songs don’t have the wit and verve of Nordin and LaPierre’s score for 1980’s Teen Musical, but they’re nicely hummable and up to the job of nudging the story along – the story being, sort of, that a hip young fly gets befriended by a boy named Buzz who wants a pet to enter in a contest, and they both end up going on a school field trip to a factory that makes a $200,000 flyswatter robot called the Superswatter 6000, and … well, there’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.
One of the advantages of going to a kids’ show during a school performance is that you get to see how the experience works for the intended audience, and on that count Fly Guy scores big. Part of it is simply the excitement of going downtown in the middle of the school day for a special event. Part of it seeing one of their literary heroes in the flesh. Part of it is asking questions of strangers.
“Are you in high school?” the kid in front of me asked, then added, “I’m five and three quarters.”
“I’m five and a half,” the boy next to him piped up. He skipped a beat, then asked, pointing to the first boy, “Am I older than he is?”
Kids like this are sponges for knowledge and experience.
OCT is flying its usual high technical standards, with droll costumes by Emily Horton, a rainbow-bright set by Tal Sanders, some boppity-bop choreography by Kemba Shannon, and brisk direction by Stan Foote. Performances are big and bold and cartoony in a good way, cheerful and a bit goofy in grand grade-school manner. Gerrin Mitchell is all abuzz as Fly Guy, Clayton Lukens is cheerfully earnest as Buzz, Claire Rigsby flits on the scene as Fly Girl (surprise!) and doubles as the flaky school principal, Macy Pofahl is the new kid (and Fly Girl’s pal) Liz, Andy Haftkowycz scores big laughs as the bearded school cafeteria cook Roz, Lydia Ellis-Curry plays both moms, and James Sharinghousen doubles as Buzz’s genial dad and the nefarious factory owner, who let’s just say is not a fan of flies.
The whole thing, well, flies by in about an hour or so, and that seems to be just about right. It’s good to be reminded that a broad blend of reality and unreality goes down quite easily at this age (the audience had no apparent trouble with the concept of tiny, barely visible flies who are also as big and obvious – and chatty! – as good-sized kids) and the whole upbeat thing reminded me of the days when the dancing dinosaurs Barney, BJ, and Baby Bop were welcome friends of the family. As the crowd filed noisily out afterwards the girl two rows down from me – the one who spent the whole show nodding her head side to side and swinging her hair like Janis Joplin rocking out on a concert stage – grinned broadly at me and flashed two thumbs up.
Mission accomplished, Fly Guy. Current events, you can’t keep a whole generation down.
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Fly Guy: The Musical continues through February 12 at the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, with weekday group school performances and weekend public performances. Ticket and schedule information here.