Americana in Concert

Reviewer's Rating

I came to this assuming “in concert” was just part of the title. In fact, “Americana” is the show, “in concert” indicating that we’re seeing a semi-staged version and the performers would sometimes be referring to scripts. In the event it wasn’t much of a drawback, as the talented cast managed to bring the show very much to life despite this limitation (and in fact didn’t need their scripts all that often). I was a little surprised that they wanted it reviewed at this stage, especially when it only runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East for three nights, but I suppose good reviews of the work in progress make full stagings later more likely. Well, I’m happy to provide one.

I also came to it wondering how much sympathy I would have with the subject matter, American teens being simultaneously the most privileged and the whiniest, most ungrateful, most entitled generation who ever lived (at least, until the next generation of American teens). However, where I feared there might be an irritating melange of growing pains/the older generation just don’t get it/why can’t people just  let me be me?, we in fact get some real theatrical meat. For the high school at which this musical is set is in conservative South Carolina, and the clash of teenage tribes is somewhat sharpened by the fact that the one doesn’t just diss the other’s music and clothes, but believes they’ll burn in the lake of fire for all eternity.

Laurence Schuman is David, an openly gay student returning to the school after some time away in an institution following a suicide attempt. His return isn’t welcomed by archetypal “mean girls” Kelly (Kate Knight), Candy (Imogen Halsey) and Marybeth (Genevieve Brown), who think he deserved all the bullying he got. Trapped in the middle are football hero Brody (Jake Morgan) and his cheerleader girlfriend Jackson (Sienna Sebek). Unlike the typical jock he’s the perfect gentleman, never trying to push her into anything more than holding his hand, which arouses her suspicions until one day she checks the browsing history on his phone…

Sebek is the best of the principles, both vocally and in terms of acting, though I would guess Schuman wasn’t in his best vocal form that night. Morgan doesn’t quite have  the charisma to hold our attention as Brodie, and it’s hard to believe him as an American football star. Among the smaller roles, Lucy Edge as Mouse and Genevieve Brown as Marybeth excel, as does Kymberley Cochrane as Miss Banks, an utterly chilling performance as the seemingly sweet and supportive teacher who turns out to harbour some appalling views. David Haydn has an odd role as “the Man” – as in “sticking it to”? – his leather cowboy hat sending rather a mixed message in terms of which of the two communities he’s intended to represent.

With such a short time at this venue, the sound balance wasn’t ideal – audibility isn’t always enhanced by turning everything up to 11 – but a longer run somewhere should put this right. This is a musical more in the mould of Rent than Phantom (and none the worse for that) and I suspect responses to it will split along generational lines. But there’s no denying it has huge energy and commitment, and unlike so many musicals it’s actually about  something.