There are certain topics that are hard to address in musicals without sounding either preachy and elementary on one hand, or triggering and tantalizing on the other. A “good” musical uses song to amplify images and emotions beyond what is expressible by mere dialogue on a stage. But what happens if the music becomes too cliché to take seriously the incredibly common and stigmatized issues faced by so many?
On paper, The Ugly Kids is a poetic fable. In performance, it is the perfect coffeehouse blend of spoken word and jazzy love song. The actors treat the thesis and antithesis of the language as bards, keeping the integrity of the message while simplifying it for those of us who are unversed in the craft of slam.
As the actors violently handle the rehearsal furniture in their playing space, I can see the dorm room materializing where Alice and Chris conquer their contrasting perspectives on how to live with their love in the light of Chris’s eating disorder.
The misfits at the unnamed university where Chris’s story takes place all have a vested interest in improving our heroine’s college experience. The artists who bring them to life encountered similar challenges with one another in their shared time at Fordham University, where rehearsals are taking place. They are all very accustomed to creating new work together, especially work that tackles difficult social and psychological issues.
Most of director JT Friedman’s notes are on the distribution and placement of energy, which bounces off the walls, ceiling and floors of the rehearsal space.
While a music rehearsal occurs around the piano, Friedman wanders around the set, banging a dead microphone prop into the palm of his left hand. He sits on the rehearsal bed and closes his eyes, his imagination at work. Playwright and lyricist Anna Michael pulls him from his dream to ask what’s wrong. He simply smiles at her until her attention is averted.
Friedman lounges on his side on the bed, still pensive, but eyes in a distant gaze, masking his deep thought. When he is finished, he sits up, and begins a seated dance to the song being rehearsed.
“Okay, now that we’ve fixed the music, we’re gonna try to fix your acting.”
“Fuck OFF,” groans a rambunctious Patrick Swailles Caldwell.
The playful exchange is reflective of the content of the show, which tackles themes of identity, addiction, and idolization.
“We create the Gods we need,” Jay, played by Caldwell, theorizes in the opening scene. And he has statistical evidence to prove it. Chris herself is one of those statistics, in naming her roommate Alice her “savior.” Her crew has their cures. They are whisky and poetry. Chris thinks every moment of her existence in poetic cadence. It is ingrained, and therefore hardly a cure. Since she won’t allow herself the indulgence of booze, she turns to her savior. “If there’s a God, your face is Alice.”
Alice (Kendall Cafaro) is a wonderous presence. Her tenderness towards her roommate-turned-friend-turned-lover is unending, and her consistent gestures in the interest of improving Chris’s college experience and assisting in her recovery do, in fact, inspire Chris to be better.
Alice begins a “Honey Whisky Drinking Song” with the warmth and gravitas of rich honey, before descending into the playful chaos that too much whisky can tend to bring. It seduces Chris the same way calories do. “A shot of whisky plus a dollop of honey / Is the honey even real?” Chris protests to her love.
Chris, Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey is said to be made with real honey. But it is a sensible question, since you refuse to drink your calories.
Unless, of course, the question that Chris is really asking is about Alice’s intentions in her alluring hymn. Alice, after all, has much to gain from winning this battle (sex, identity, the satisfaction of knowing she was the catalyst in Chris’s fun). But Alice is not Chris’s only temptress in the scene. Chris regards the full shot glass as a recovering alcoholic might. But it is not the booze that she grapples with. It’s that “dollop of honey.”
The old Benjamin Franklin axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is the wall that crumbles on top of Chris’s tongue as she succumbs. There is a spasm in actress Moira McCauliffe’s neck. Her vice—that sweet caloric dose—now brings to her the opposite of the satisfaction she once felt when indulging in her dangerous lust.
Tony Macht plays with his compositions, sometimes disregarding his sheet music as he reconstructs majors into minors in spontaneous reaction to the scene. His co-writer, Anna, plays with pieces of tape behind the table, ripping them off the dispenser and folding them until they are tiny, thick rolls.
College can take a toll. For some of us, it’s a more taxing experience than for others. A creative environment can often help to soothe anxieties and offer an outlet for the sharing of experiences; the sharing of humanity. It is clear that within this creative process these same rules apply, and the sharing of this story is nothing short of landmark. These kids are pretty ugly, but that’s what makes their story so beautiful.
The Ugly Kids By Anna Michael (words) & Tony Macht (composition)
Presented by the Fresh Fruit Festival
- Tuesday 7/17 7:00 p.m.
- Friday 7/20 6:00 p.m.
- Saturday 7/21 2:00 p.m. (talk-back following performance)
- Directed by JT Friedman
- Produced by Leigh Honigman
- Associate Produced by Emma Hasselbach
- With Moira McAuliffe, Patrick Swailes Caldwell, Joey Nasta, Kendall Cafaro and Alicia Moeller
- Costumes: Danica Martino
- Set: Sarina Rivera
- Lights: Elizabeth McManamon
Tickets can be purchased HERE!