Monday, April 15, 2024

More Good-looking High Schoolers Sing and Dance Cliches

An ersatz Broadway springing from the cultural void of Northern Palm Beach County, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has remained somewhat aloof and removed from the communal South Florida theatre scene, and not just due to its

remote location. Maltz rarely uses our talented coterie of actors and actresses for its productions, preferring to fly in out-of-town talent, a luxury afforded by its considerable largesse of private and public funds. And the shows it produces are splashy, expensive and dauntingly classic, especially compared to the more modestly scaled productions of most regional theaters. The Maltz is a singular oasis, and by mounting extravagant revivals of shows like “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Anything Goes” and “Barnum” for patrons old enough to remember the shows when they first premiered, it has built a winning brand: Most of its performances play to capacity audiences.

Which is why Maltz’s second show of its 2010-2011 season raised an eyebrow. Sandwiched between two timeless money-makers – the recently mounted, and quite exceptional, “12 Angry Men” and the upcoming “The Sound of Music” – is a world-premiere musical that at first glance seems more in the risk-taking domain of Florida Stage. The show, titled “Academy,” is set in a private, fictitious all-boys high school. Transferred to the academy after the death of his father, Benji (Alex Wyse) is a sweet-natured, milquetoast outcast with an inevitable inhaler. Like him or not, he will be our easily corruptible conduit into a cutthroat world, where two senior students – his bitter distant cousin Amory (Corey Boardman) and the wise but jaded Michael (Wilson Bridges) – will make a bet on whether they can influence the naive Benji to break a few rules to succeed in school and overcome a debilitating “freshman curse.”

Technically, “Academy” plays to Maltz’s spare-no-expense strengths. The sets are versatile and fluid, changing on a dime from classroom to dorm room to library, with video images projected onto the backdrops to enhance the atmosphere. The performers’ vocals soar above the tight playing of a live, nine-piece orchestra.

The problem, as is often the case with untested work, is the piece itself, and it’s a problem large and egregious enough that it swallows most of the production’s achievements. There is not an original note in the show’s body, nor is there a character drawn in more than one dimension. “Academy” is a minimalist narrative more appropriate for an hour-long TV drama (the “after-school special” kind, if those even still exist) than the grandiose stages of Broadway-lite. Its wafer-thin storyline is buried by the smoke and mirrors of one unmemorable song after another – a total of 18 in a single-act, hour-and-a-half-long show – leaving us little time between numbers to situate ourselves amid the hacky cliches of John Mercurio’s writing (which extends to the songs themselves: Don’t get me started on such cutesy rhymes as “cash in on the cachet” and “to start with, there’s Dartmouth!”).

For Mercurio, every problem can be explained away by either daddy issues or sexual confusion, the former made explicit through his characters’ dime-store psych analyses of their deeply rooted problems, and the latter never addressed in any legitimate way, lest some in the audience feel a little uncomfortable. This limply explored angle mostly manifests itself in the form of the most stereotypical character in the play, Conrad (Andy Mientus), a secret ballet dancer pressured into athletics by – who else? – his father. But what remains even more unspoken is the relationship that develops between Benji and Michael: an unspecified love affair that Mercurio, even in this most liberal milieu of the entertainment industry – musical theatre – apparently lacks the balls to call what it is. It’s a little absurd that in an all-boys preparatory school, there is not one mention of girls or sex. One is just left to assume everybody is gay, closeted by the show’s timid creator.

Most of the themes of “Academy” are lazily telegraphed by literary allusions, beginning with Amory and Michael’s Faustian plot to steal Benji’s soul; In case we can’t figure it out, Mercurio has some the boys audition for a school drama production of “Faust.” Elsewhere, Mercurio name-drops Ralph Waldo Emerson, Persephone, Machiavelli, Baudelaire and Balzac, unsuccessfully attempting to add a patina of class to this predictable drek.

Part of the reason “Academy” feels so tiresome may be no fault of Mercurio or Andrew Kato, the Maltz artistic director who conceived the production. Part of it is simply poor timing. Though the show was first conceived in 2000 at a workshop production at Columbia University, its premiere a decade later finds the show landing in a post-“High School Musical,” post-“Spring Awakening,” post-“Glee” environment that’s already exhausted itself of singing, dancing Abercrombie models. “Academy” is riding a wave that’s already crashed.

“Academy” is at Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 Indiantown Road, Jupiter, through Dec. 19. Tickets are $39 to $53. Call 561-743-2666.

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