Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
Walking into the pleasantly intimate American Theatre of Actors’ Sargent Theatre, one is immediately swept up in a barrage of BFA karaoke staples. No, you’re not at Marie’s Crisis, but Off-Broadway’s newest millennial-aimed musical The Green Room. “Proud Mary” or “You Don’t Own Me” mix with Great American Songbook standards, majority if not all of them sung by female vocalists. While I wondered at the stark contrast between the decades being listened to pre-show and the ensuing present-day plot, the pre-show’s musical message of self-empowerment ultimately paints a strong picture for the snappy 95 minutes to follow in bouncy, genre-jumping music and lyrics by Chuck Pelletier.
The self-empowerment in question takes the form of a witty bildungsroman exploration of four friends’ journey together through college, where they traverse the ups and downs of pursuing their theatre degrees, dreams, and (like any good hormone-infused story of youth) each other. There’s wide-eyed Anna Kearns, played with heart, sincerity, and a soaring, melodious talent by real-life college student Sami Staitman. There’s Anna’s Star Trek-tee-clad yet swaggering brother Clifford, played by a side-splitting Eli LaCroix delivering comedic prowess rivaling that of the hit show “Veep”’s Jonah Ryan. Then you have Anna’s lanky, “my dad wants me to be a partner at his architecture firm but I love acting instead” boyfriend John Radford (Corbin Williams) and best friend Divonne Bruder (Ariana Valdes). While the quartet shine in various solos and tight four-part harmonies throughout the show (superb music direction by David Fletcher), Valdes in particular earns every showstopping wisecrack and brassy number with ease and agility. The quartet’s easygoing, natural chemistry as they navigate their world and all its problems isn’t far off from one side plot we might expect to see should “Glee” ever return to air; however, unlike that groundbreaking television show, on stage here in The Green Room, topical issues such as wealth inequality, sexuality, pregnancy, and body insecurity are not excavated for much more than cheap, lazy laughs, with a book by C. Stephen Foster and Rod Damer rather preferring these conflicts to only touch briefly, not unlike the fake tips of the prop swords the students use for class assignments instead of engaging in real battle/discourse.
This mental ping-pong between creating a safe, squeaky clean growing up story and the gritty, uncomfortable reality of modern day’s college life bounces between scenes with varying degrees of awareness. Both acts have a troubling, overbearing male perspective, and, while a hilarious highlight number does involve ejaculation, the rough patches are not so much in the material presented, but rather what’s not: Devonne and Anna both confront decisions about their bodies and autonomy of choices, yet neither is lingered on very long, as their issues are quickly resolved in scenes immediately following their introduction.
The nexus between not giving the girls’ issues room to breathe and a lack of fruitful discussion amongst the motley crew about their psychological toll is only exacerbated by the conclusion of the show, which focuses instead on the easier smooth-sailing of the boys’ college journeys leaning on the jaw-dropping unacknowledged privilege of their architecture firm Dad and “self-made millionaire” Dad respectively. While the girls deliver fantastic, toe-tapping solos by the end about reclaiming their time and possession of their college and future careers, declaring “it’s all about me” and “no I’m not gonna sing one more ballad,” it’s hard to applaud after it follows one more lazy lesbian joke is made or one more lines makes it clear there is a lack of acknowledgement (or maybe understanding) that the “joke” that Divonne is always cast as the background character is actually a very prevalent racist casting issue countless college students of color in theatre programs across America face daily. Both young women in the show possess and develop incredible self-awareness throughout the show, constantly analyzing what they could have done better in an audition or relationship, yet by the end, it is the girls who change their behaviors and mindsets to accommodate their “problems” with body image and casting, while the boys write a fun (and very actually funny) musical inside the musical. The Green Room lives in the safety of comedy and comradery of the characters rather than engaging with the true difficulty of the issues it presents of today’s college culture.
Despite these qualms, the music and lyrics are snappy, smart, and voracious for community and school groups to croon them in their own school theater programs one day. Ranging from the blues to pop and ballads, each song is a gem of character inflection in the hands of four bright, talented actors. They transition from naïve freshmen to skilled seniors in a heartbreakingly truthful performance of the camaraderie any tight-knit theater program alumni can attest to. There is a subtle yet clear maturity and unspoken bonding they have done sticking together through thick and thin, and aided by director/choreographer Jessica Jennings, costumes by Kyrie Ellison, and set pieces by Johnny Blaze Leavitt, our humble quartet delivers their best, heartwarming approach to the wobbly story with grit and grace.
The Green Room, after graduating this run, is bound to find the Anna, Cliff, John, and Divonnes of real-life student groups wanting a snappy new alternative to [title of show], and those students will be delighted to find in The Green Room, a well-intentioned love song to the theater and young thespians everywhere “Waiting in the Wings.”
The Green Room
“The Green Room,” directed/choreographed by Jessica Jennings with music direction by David Fletcher, has a book by C. Stephen Foster and Rod Damer, and music and lyrics by Chuck Pelletier. Cast includes Ryan Farnsworth, Sami Staitman, Eli LaCroix, Ariana Valdes, and Corbin Williams. Creative team includes Ken Coughlin (Technical Director), Monica Blaze-Leavitt (Fight Director), Kyrie Ellison (Additional Costumes), Johnny Blaze Leavitt (Additional Set Pieces). Run time is 95 minutes with 1 intermission.
“The Green Room” opened Sept. 27 at American Theatre of Actors’ Sargent Theatre (314 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019) through October 27. Running Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, with Saturday matinees at 2pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets now on sale at Brown Paper Tickets at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4274991
Photo: Ariana Valdes, Sami Staitman, Corbin Williams, Eli LaCroix by S. Scott Miller