Theater is characterized by careful rehearsal, yet there is a reason for the saying “the show must go on”: surprises always crop up, requiring creative problem-solving. A week before rehearsals for The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Rising Star Project were supposed to start, Governor Jay Inslee issued the shelter in place order, requiring the students and mentors to adapt quickly. Their solution was to live-stream the musicals on Facebook.
This year, the musicals are inspired by a true story from KUOW’s RadioActive podcast. Each production explores a different issue in the modern world. Beyond Boundaries, with book and music by Lydia Hayes, utilizes a science fiction premise to create an insightful allegory about the significant link between one’s name and one’s identity. The Pen With Four Colors, with music by James McGough and Lucas Oktay and book by Morgan Gwertzman, is a testament to the healing power of art. However, I felt most strongly about the shows Bad Trip and Gut Feeling, which I have expanded on below.
Bad Trip - Book and lyrics by Ana Hiciano de Gongora, Music by Tony McCahill
Warning: slight spoilers ahead
In Bad Trip, Jared Tellerman (Duncan Kinsey) is a teenager who struggles with addiction. After he accidentally overdoses and experiences a mysterious and revelatory vision, he must face his mother Olivia Tellerman (Meagan Cooper), who has her own hidden past, and find a way to move forward.
The first half of this show feels expository—the dialogue and songs lay out Jared’s rocky relationship with his mother in a perfunctory way. Even when Jared overdoses and encounters the sharp and complex Liv (Alexa Thompson) in a vision, the mysterious tone of the meeting falls flat due to the static nature of the scene. A large amount of time is spent describing Jared and Liv’s meeting place as a type of “void” without “doors or actual exits,” and the characters also verify that the other is real. It is only the end of the scene where the plot advances, when Jared and Liv accept that they are partially responsible for their drug use.
I also have mixed feelings about the phrase “bad trip” which is repeated throughout the musical. The phrase is used for thematic effect—it serves as Olivia’s personal quirk, an allusion to her old drug habit, and a hint to the true identity of the mysterious Liv.
Repeating a phrase can be an effective trope, yet in this case, it does not quite work. Used outside of the context of drugs, “bad trip” is such an unconventional phrase that it is hard to parse. In this context, it is best translated as “my mistake,” but this is not evident until closer consideration, rendering the device less impactful.
Nevertheless, the musical’s strengths lie in the family aspects of the story. The second act delivers a full slate of emotion, spearheaded by Cooper. Cooper and Kinsey as a mother-son duo deliver a heated but authentic portrait of a family where people argue because they care deeply about each other, which resonated with me. I too have had moments where my irritation towards family can flip to understanding and forgiveness because I’m reminded that they are people as well. In those moments, I feel sudden empathy for my parents and a little shame for being inadvertently self-centered, and this show does well to capture the nuance of that situation.
I also enjoyed the score; by composing music to underscore the dialogue in some scenes, McCahill adds to the natural flow of the musical.
Despite the show’s (minor) faults, the familial relationship at the center of the play rings true in a lovely show.
Gut Feeling - Music by Emily Saletan, Book by Lilly Grey Rudge
In Gut Feeling, teenager Kamil (Trenton Walker) has ulcerative colitis, a chronic illness that impacts one of the most important things in life: going to the bathroom. Now, as he is preparing to undergo surgery to remove his colon, Kamil must make a final decision and face his anxieties in the shape of his fabulous, personified colon (Coleman Hunter).
Chronic illness is a serious topic, yet Saletan and Rudge brought unexpected levity to the book and music. There are several cheery a capella numbers, one explaining the various symptoms of ulcerative colitis, and another performed by an ensemble of sock puppet white blood cells. Kamil’s colon is a highlight of the production, performing both a seductive slow jam and a heartfelt breakup duet with Kamil, making for a light-hearted and very funny show.
It is also evident from the music that Saletan and Rudge are familiar with the musical theater form. They use theatrical conventions such as reprises (repeating a previous song from the show in a new context, often with new lyrics) and sampling older music (in this case the iconic strings from Carrie) to create a show that feels integrated and embedded within the world of theater. The lyrics also have a natural flow and clever rhymes, and I must commend the music director Henry Roseman for the crisp ensemble numbers that were timed impeccably.
Overall, this is a show with a big heart, making a story about a serious surgery for a chronic illness a genuinely fun watch.
It is ambitious to tackle big subjects in a (more or less) 10-minute musical, and where I critique I do so with a large helping of respect. Creating a musical from scratch is no small feat, and I will look out for future works from these artists.
RadioActive Musicals premiered May 7 & 8, 2020. For more information and to stream the performances see here.