Two Shows with Teen Angst, Talent, Terrific Songs. Generation Me; Peace, Love and Cupcakes

By ROB LESTER*** Looking for musicals about teens and their troubles? See our Pick of the Week for info on Happily (August 3 & 4) at NYMF.  And here are reviews at two that came by first: along first at the at two that came by first: Generation Me is gripping, powerful stuff; Peace, Love and Cupcakes is adorable and sweetly tasty.  Each in its own way, they are overall winning shows bursting with talented young casts, and also winning extra credit points for much-needed/ much-appreciated messages about acceptance and prices paid for bullying and peer pressure.  Both of these have pasts and bright futures. Both start off with songs titled “Monday Morning” with the same situation: students nervously confronting that post-weekend return to school, beginning with the protagonist nagged to get ready for school. It’s that time again: time to face yet another week of challenges, social interaction —in-person and online —- and drama (and I don’t just mean drama class, although Peace, Love and Cupcakes lets us meet our junior high schoolers as a group there, as the mixed-grade students present or improvise speeches about what rocks their individual worlds (robots, painting, or horror films, anyone?). And, scene by scene, we follow the adventures and struggles of the new girl eager to fit in, but not at the price of giving up her individuality or bowing to the super-snooty, insulting uber-popular girl who makes life a living hell.  Generation Me has a very similarly condescending, mean-spirited character, but it’s a far heavier, more ambitious, serious, and more mature, taking place in senior high school and presents its world-changer plot element almost immediately: teen suicide.  

Whereas P, L and C has an episodic plot unfolding chronologically, Generation Me’s scenes hopscotch through time, with flashbacks and reactions to the death of a student many were connected with to allow us to piece together the cumulative pressures, disappointments, changes in relationships and misunderstandings and miscommunications that motivate Milo to take the desperate step of taking his own life.  

Let’s take a closer look at each:

Generation Me, despite its sections of artful stylizations and dance (which are wonderfully effective), still rings true as very moving drama, especially in the final scenes that are often wrenching.  This painful payoff is earned via palpable, gutsy emotional currency in the writing, staging, and some excellent, convincing acting.  There’s cumulative impact of the intersecting and not always predictable plot twists, with characters we come to care about and mostly sympathize with (except the aforementioned bully and a few who don’t get much stage time in the spotlight).  

Ryan Warren’s direction is well paced and lets us linger in moments when we want to drink things in and have time to think.  Stage pictures are natural, with the ubiquitous school lockers smartly used and on the move with trying for frequent flyer miles.  The choreography by Jacob Montoya and the fights staged by Matthew Ip Shaw add to the complete picture.

Music director/orchestrator/guitarist  Conor Keelan’s work is rich and right.  The music benefits from its playing by the sextet and kudos to the smart inclusion of a cello.  In a nicely varied set of songs –music by Will Finan and lyrics by Julie Soto, who also wrote the book — we get many flavors and insights.  “I Thought It Was Me” is the standout as a moment of epiphany, but many capture the teen spirit, restlessness, and lingo.  It’s surprising that this is the first full score for either!  The tough realities and anguish can be heavy going, but the truths and intensity aren’t always relentlessly unblinking.  The show knows how important comic relief is and that even what might bubble up like a soap opera can benefit from bubbling humor.  So much of that comes not with gratuitous jokes, thankfully, but from character humor based in well-played relationships among friends and those who spark each other. A well-played, very early “best buds” scene with Milo (played by namesake Milo Manheim, at right in photo) in a performance that captures teen insecurities and burdens, with a notable range) and Cody (Will Meyers, at left in photo), so charismatic and interesting in his portrayal that you long for him to have his own subplots apart from being a satellite of Milo’s saga) paves the way for endearing them to us.  Talented Mr. Meyers further impresses with the sorrow and rue and guilt he displays in the final scenes — not just as written on the page, but written all over his face, eyes brimming with tears and a haunted sorrow.  And when their friendship is tested and the losses add up, we feel their pain.   It’s all about bras and baseball (the former literally and the latter metaphorically, as in “getting to first base”).  The various students’ interest in sex eschews the affect or effect of smarminess, shock value, or tired stereotypes, but simply seem realistic and appropriate to the material and age.  And, rather than being heterosexist or self-consciously politically-correct inclusive, same-gender attraction is referenced in subplots with supporting roles and sometimes supportive friends.  Virginity, presumed or otherwise, comes into play in the play, as do other real-life issues making the lives of some teens more complicated and pressured, if only because they are not discussed face to face: physical abuse, body/weight image, alcohol, family neglect, and, last but not least, the toll of bullying, cliques, and the rumor mill via social media.  

If there’s an unintentional elephant in the room, the screens flickering with text messages (which continue their threads projected during intermission!) and the central incident of teen suicide will probably cause this very worthy musical to be compared to the successful and prize-winning smash hit Dear Evan Hanson.  Only a myopic fool would make such quick (pre-)judgments based on surface stuff, not unlike some (tragically)  prone-to-assumptions characters in Generation Me, just by the two musical dramas’  similar stripes of subjects and population.  Such out-of-hand dismissal would be to miss the point or, worse, for this show to miss its opportunity for attention and productions.  

There’s not a weak linkamong these cast members,  some of whom have played their roles before, such as Meyers, Julia Nightingale, an asset as Milo’s sometimes fragile girlfriend and Anabella Ronson-Benenati superb as the intriguing outsider and sad character Milo befriends and confides in.  Ian Ferrell is pure delight and welcome comic respite bouncing around with fun energy as the younger, shorter student who wants to be in the big league, the kid who fawns over Miss Popularity in vain.  I’ll be very surprised if this production doesn’t take home some NYMF awards and get picked up for more productions.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  Julie Soto wrote the show because after her years as a teen performer and then 14 years of producing shows for those under 18, she’d “exhausted” what was out there in existing material, and wanted age-appropriate roles with meat on the bones, so she wrote her own.  Three cheers for the necessity that led to this inventive material that presents teen characters with respect, dignity, and three-dimensionality.

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Peace, Love and Cupcakes is welcome breath of fresh air.  Its cast is young, young, young, but these kids are not getting by on cute or precocious.  The Center Stage Theatre Company, based in Connecticut, comes to NYMF and NYC, bringing their peace (the show and its anti-bullying message donate funds to the awareness/educational www.nobully.org), love (not romance, but it’s OK to love what you do), and cupcakes (baking can lead to happy endings-making).  This is a solid, crisp family musical that is very accessible to kids and is economic in presenting its kid protagonists and the one adult (a teacher, nicely played as supportive advisor by Calli McRae) and their dilemmas.  The large number of people in the story and the desire to bring home the point may lead to more obvious telegraphing and broad-stroke outlines in drawing characters, some of whom fall into “types,” but shortcuts help young audiences connect the dots and get “who’s who.”   There’s a moment at the end with a major character that feels too pat and not sufficiently motivated in a change-around I can’t be more specific about without being a spoiler.  Transmitting the messages about self-acceptance, self-confidence, self-worth, unselfishness, etc. are more important than complicated subplots or layered characterization when you have two dozen folks in the story.  

The kids eventually fall into a few grouping categories, rather than two dozen vastly different personalities competing for our attention: (1) the ones who become the cupcake-makers; (2) the nice, mostly younger kids who sit in a special part of the cafeteria for a special reason (the casually-delivered line “This is the allergy table” gets a big laugh); (3) the guys who are jocks; (4)the  snooty “mean girls” with their feared and fearless leader of insults and her minions, the spoiled brat pack.  This “ick” clique has no redeeming qualities in their relentless rejection of the new girl in school, encouraging all to join them in tauntingly proclaiming “Kylie Carson Doesn’t Belong Here.” They are nasty, superficial, cruel, shallow, but much of that is played for either laughs or impact for the lessons to be delivered, a means to an end.  The followers’ exits, each flicking her hair and strutting with self-love is almost like choreography.  They get their own group songs celebrating their above-mentioned qualities.  They’re led by Alexa Reeves, at center of the pretty-in-pink-but-they-stink girls in photo) who certainly gets into the evil ways of the bullying snob.  

Although I wish that the older boys could be shown to have more interests than cupcakes and sports (a football or basketball is often in hand and the team is their main topic of conversation and their male-bonding team “fight” song. While the show successfully presents Kylie as being happily different with her unique interests in monster movies and two pre-teen/maybe pre-tween boys are likably shown with their hobbies surrounding painting or robots, why do the four older boys have to be stereotype/clustered as seemingly single-minded sports-mad? This seems a missed opportunity to have a role model for a non-jock guy in the audience.  Luckily, the quartet of actors in this group radiate good vibrations.  James Ignacio is (and has) a welcome stage presence.  More prominent are David Hoffman, with an easy sense of confidence and focus and, worth waiting for, a song/rap to wrap up the show and its message in a denouement.  Long of hair and long on naturalness as a believable guy around school, Jack Richman stands out in the company via all-around talent, plus attention and reactions to everything happening on the stage so that his involvement makes one want to watch him as a representative of the ensemble.  (You kind of wish for a gender-switched alternate cast with performances the next weekend where he played the lead part of a student setting up a baking club or any club.) Diego Lucano, with bright eyes and bright energy, does a grand job gleefully leading the cast in the show’s best number, “Delicious,”  sweeping a dance partner off her feet, sweeping us all along with his joy.  Endearingly, Eliza Holland Madore, age 11, heads a reprise of this smile-inducing number in the second act.  She’s already been hired by two Broadway companies, as an alternate, over the last few years, and she has two more things to be plenty proud of— her good work here and the fine job done by a relative — David John Madore, who happens to be her dad, and the music director/pianist.

The show is directed and choreographed by Elizabeth Racanelli, who uses the space well and keeps things uncluttered, crisp, and gives us moments to savor without feeling rushed or lingering too much.  We even savor the kids savoring the taste of the titular cupcakes which also look yummy.  Rick Hip-Flores has written music and lyrics that really capture the moods and attitudes.  While the show is in two acts, I could have used a couple more songs.  They are that good. Group vocal harmonies are solid, with the opening “Monday Morning” company morning especially full of precision, setting up an exciting feel of agitation and worry, quickly showing us that these aren’t spoiled kids who will have everything served to them on a silver platter (except those cupcakes).   

The peppy and effective musical with lessons to teach (mission accomplished!!) is based on the novel of the same title co-credited to author Sheryl Berk and her daughter, Carrie Berk, who was nine years old at the time of publication five years ago.  (There are six sequels.)  The two Berks collaborated on the musical’s script with Jill Jaysen of Center Stage Theatre Company, producer and acting coach for this production.  She’s also a founding producer of NYMF with an impressive track record.  Carrie herself played the central character, that Kylie who “doesn’t belong,” but I caught the third performance when the role was taken by Madison Mullahey, who presented a thoughtful, convincing portrayal.  Her big number about being “Different” is richly delivered, with power and shading,  She’s an experience Equity actress who’s had roles in two national tours.  We instantly care about the character in a real way, as she plays her “real,” not going overboard in seeking sympathy for the outcast, and avoiding the sugary aspects in everything except the actual cupcake recipe.  She sings strongly, with emotion, digging deeper than the surface minimums.  (Co-writer/actress Carrie herself is now 14, and the character has aged with her, no longer the fourth-grader Kylie was when the book came out.)               

They used to say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  For kids, cupcakes might just be a good start, but it takes plays that finish the job, like this one, to get to the heart of kids’ problems, like bullying, peer pressure, and difficulty making friends.  

From the program notes: “The goal of Peace, Love and Cupcakes is to inspire kids to embrace their individuality and use their voices to positively impact the world around them.  Kids around the country, from elementary school through college, are encouraged to get involved and immediately qualify to become an Ambassador for Making a Difference.” (See www.plcmusical.com)

How encouraging that there are musicals for younger and older kids and families, with roles for kids, like Generation Me and Peace, Love and Cupcakes being written, produced, and performed by dedicated and talented  folks, full of respect for young people and young people’s theatre.  I hope to see those involved bloom as they do more and will look forward to hearing that these particular musicals will be back on stages very soon.