By ROB LESTER***Living as the gender one sees oneself as or with same -gendered teammates (girl power)…NYMF shows cover both. Numbers Nerds is a likeable, sweet quite entertaining musical and The Body Politic is a very, very earnest sung through piece. These very different musicals which I took in —in the same space, The Peter Jay Sharp space at Playwrights Horizons on Theatre Row— were my scheduled reviewing assignments on the same day this week, one early in the day and the other in the evening. And that isn’t the only way they were as different as night and day. Characters in both pieces fantasize about moving to New York, but for different reasons to be sure. Both shows conclude their brief festival runs this Sunday, July 23, seeking audiences now and for future mountings.
The self-proclaimed Numbers Nerds are high school students who are members of the math team, eager to compete in a national competition. A pretty big club is the sub-genre of musicals that have used school days and their clubs and cliques to click with an audience, but this one does it especially well and in an endearing way. Unlike some festival entries with their eyes on the prize of Broadway, this little musical aims at the school and regional market and it should have a long life. (It was originally written in response to requests for more shows with mainly female casts. The NYMF presentation is of its 6-character version, but it has also been developed as a property with a much larger cast.)
The musical recalls The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee —in a good way— in showing how its otherwise misfit kids find their niche and comfort zone in competitions showing off their strength in one area. While bonded via their path to math, the smart characters are smartly diverse and the casting here is on the money all around: Playing BFF pals are Madison Kauffman and Maisie Rose, playing, respectively, Barbie —the goofy oddball who has a thing for unicorns — and Melissa, who freezes up when “The Pressure Is On,” which does the opposite of winning her points in both the regional competition and and with her teammates. Both actresses are repeating their roles from earlier presentations of this project by Chicago-based creatives. Nailing her snooty character from the first impression and then gathering steam, Tiffany Tatreau is sharp as Amber, the popularity-obsessed girl most set against Melissa staying on the team after she messes up. This provides much of the conflict and the plot’s developments to have sad sack Melissa try to get over her propensity to panic and be reinstated. Danielle Davila is solid and well-rounded as Mary Kate, the student who gets more than she bargained for when she flirts with Leroy, a socially awkward new boy in school who shows up asking about joining the team. Jake Morrissy is a real comedy find as Leroy, a cornucopia of tics and gawky movements, facial expressions, quirky line readings and reactions, all of which make him magnetic and responsible for LOL moments galore. The indispensable Sharon Sacks is deliciously hammy and hilarious as the laid-off drama teacher ready, willing, and able to use her theatre techniques to coach Melissa out of her stage fright. (We first meet her singing a line from the score of Gypsy as she goes about her new job as a school janitor and she sweeps into every scene with a flourish and flair.)
Unlike many NYMF shows, this one isn’t visually anemic. Designs with numbers floating and kaleidoscopically dancing on the background screen, sketches of settings, role model/hero Albert Einstein’s face, wording of the complicating question that vexes Melissa, etc. Our eyes are engaged with each change and with color. Some brightly-hued boxes are multi-purpose items which, of course, are decorated with numbers, numbers, numbers and math symbols.
And our ears and minds are richly rewarded with the songs by Alex Higgin-Houser (lyrics) and David Kornfeld (music, with additional melodies contributed by pianist/conductor Dylan MarcAurele) charm, have likable energy, are admirably character-driven, and feel, satisfyingly, like extensions of Laura Stratford’s dialogue and Larry Little’s original story (somewhat based on people he knew). Amber Mak’s direction and choreography make it all of a piece and, like the “mathletes” in the play, there’s great teamwork here. (The writers have collaborated on other musicals and what we see at MYMF makes us eager to experience those.) Among the highlights: (1) the burst of excitement about being able to travel to glamorous and exciting “New York” —although the funny payoff is that we Manhattanites watching assume these small-towners are speaking of our city, but they are dreaming about New York State — for the competition held in big-city Poughkeepsie! (2) “I Look Like an Engineer” is a spot-on feminist stereotype-destroyer. (3) “In Defense of Math” (music by MarcAurele) is excellent and touching, allowing the high schoolers to be eloquent about their love for mathematics’ reliable exactness when other things in their lives can be so unpredictable and shaky. It’s beauty in songwriting and delivery, crystallizing the attraction previously suggested in lighter ways. If any of the kids were earlier seen as more cartoon-like, they really show their “real” thoughts here. Another song or two could be helpful in the second half of the story (there’s no intermission), perhaps letting us in more on Amber’s motivations and past hurts so we care about her more. And Leroy’s oddball obsessions and post-home schooling freedom shown in book scenes might be transformed into a solo number. (Did I say “number”?) Indeed, the mvany elements in Numbers Nerds “add up” to a terrific little musical that others of its ilk can’t equal.
The Body Politic takes itself extremely seriously (except for some welcome winking playfulness by the drag queen character) and is rather heavy going. Despite much soul-bearing and oversharing, venting and lamenting, expressed aggravation about immigration, sturm und drang, its presentation of gender politics—all of which is sung— I didn’t feel I really knew the characters or connected with them. Although I was in the second row, I still felt a distance. With its thoughts on families we’re born into or make on our own, this might be more a musical one respects and admires, rather than loves and dives into. Some of it starts to feel redundant early on. We “get” it. But still, the characters go on and on. Lyrics repeat: “We’ll see”; “You could come, too/ You could come with me, Mother/ Come with me/ Come with your son”; “They are free, but alone/ Am I free? Am I alone?/ Chapel Hill is lonely/ America is lonely…”
Laleh Khorsandi as the mother back in Afghanistan is saddled with verse after verse chastising her cross-dressing offspring and breast-beatingly crying out “You Are a Woman” and nagging and inducing guilt regarding duty to family (If at first you don’t succeed, sing, sing it again), while Yassi Noubahar, in reply, insistently counteracts with variations of “I am your son!” and “I will not be a girl!” as she—shades of Yentl — goes out to live as a man to have the opportunities that girls are not allowed. The actress kind of shares the role with doe-eyed Sami El-Noury who portrays the character later. So, there’s lots of stage-sharing and exposition. His sympathetic active listening lights up the actor’s face and emotion drips. Asher Dubin as the drag queen is forceful and feisty, reaching into pink padded bra for a bottle of liquid refreshment, singing “If you frisk me/ You’ll find whiskey.” This respite, while a bit too in-your-face and crass, is later topped with some witty moments and quips that sting effectively in their unblinking ways.
Narrative exposition goes on when we want present action. Tension and rue dominate, accusations fly long before the prop of a kite and mentions of birds and nests hit us over the head with their metaphors of flying away and being free. Oh, the angst! But even when the Charles Osborne lyrics descend into this kind of thing, some swaths of the Leo Hurley melodies and the playing of the in-the-wings five-member band can be lovely to drink in. Flute! Clarinet! Cello!
The hard-working cast has many impressive vocal moments and some of what they have to sing is demanding and borders on more operatic stylings. Tina Scariano, in particular, soars time and again. Zi Alikhan directs with a relentless focus on the grave and the glum, with some flickers of sunshine as New York and the unseen Staue of Liberty become beacons of hope. Maybe those of us in the audience who believe in “Live and let live” and are immigrant-friendly folks felt like someone was preaching to the choir. In the program, it’s noted that the opera-like musical was presented on site at the North Carolina Legislature during the bathroom law debate and that a Reprentative went on record to say seeing it opened her up her mind about transgender people and she subsequently voted for repeal. (P.S.: The bathrooms nearby at the the theatre have signs on their door welcoming patrons to go into whatever room conforms to their gender, labeling them not by words specifiying “Men” and “Women” but “with urinals” and “without urinals.”)