Compassionate “Academy” shows potential amid rough edges and technical glitches

Alex Wyse as Benji (left) and Wilson Bridges as Michael in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre's production of "Academy."

An infectious earnestness and compassion imbue Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production of Academy, a heartfelt pop chamber musical about the angst of teens struggling toward responsible adulthood.

If this world premiere stumbled at times Thursday, director/conceiver Andrew Kato ably led a skilled team to create a moving evening from John Mercurio’s book, music and lyrics that glow with the freshness of a unique voice.

The show has been in development for ten years including a 45-minute version that played at the Maltz in 2008, plus award-winning workshops in New York and South Korea. This official debut features the New York core cast of nine plus 11 local actors filling out the chorus.

Academy tells of two seniors in an uppercrust prep school who wager whether a freshman can be tempted to break the rules to stay enrolled in the pressure-cooker institution that virtually assures a prosperous future. St. Edwards Academy is one of those venerable schools where the boys may Twitter and fly by on skateboards, but they also curse at each other in fluent Latin and have a don’s knowledge of Greek mythology.

The plot mirrors the Faust play that the students are rehearsing, but Academy focus on the universal pain of the journey from adolescence to being a grown-up.’ Even the insiders agonize over familial baggage, fear what’s ahead and are certain they are alone in their torment.

As in Spring Awakening, most characters primarily sing their private thoughts to themselves. That allows them to reveal to us a level of uncensored anguish that would sound false otherwise. For instance, a newcomer who relied on his deceased father’s judgment sings of his sense of being lost at the new school in the song Without You.

That singer is the socially inept freshman Benji (Alex Wyse), an Everygeek uncomfortable in his own skin. But he is also overwhelmingly engaging in his enthusiasm to make good for his widowed mother and the uncle who is paying the tuition.

His seemingly self-assured cousin, Amory (Corey Boardman), is the scion of a powerful family. But his father’s indifference has engendered a cynicism that leads Amory to create the heartless bet and become the manipulative devil to tempt Benji to cheat on an exam.

The good angel who reluctantly takes the bet is Michael (Wilson Bridges), a decent, affable golden boy whose family has planned on him being the fourth generation to attend Stanford. He befriends and aids Benji, surprised to find satisfaction in altruism.

The fallout from the bet becomes increasing serious and everyone faces a crisis of integrity that will define their manhood.

Mercurio’s score is intentionally dissonant in the opening, but settles into a bright, warm sound that reflects the hope, eagerness and anxiety of its characters. Mercurio melds a pop flavor, classical complexity and Broadway tilt toward power ballads and chorus numbers.

His lyrics work well, especially when you realize that the overheated sentiments are typical of conflicted adolescents in crisis. While they are extremely well-worn ideas, Mercurio never expresses them in banal clich’s. They also shine when they are inventively indirect. At one point, Amory laments his father’s apathy, intentionally using phrases you’d never hear a teen say aloud.

You don’t stay up and wait
To yell at me for being late
You never say I must or should
These are the things you never do
But I wish you would

His pure dialogue scenes score as well. While there isn’t an adult physically in sight, the profound influences of parents are almost as corporeal as the smoke wafting across the stage. He also has a supply of quips that lighten the proceedings.

Michael warns Benji: ‘I know (Amory); he’ll pull out the Machiavelli and soon you’re selling your sister down river for a killer mnemonic to the periodic table.’

Kato, who is the Maltz’s artistic director, has deftly directed the show — with some asterisks. His pacing of the musical numbers, for both good and ill, hurtles along like a car careening down a hill. The show never bogs down, but you can get a bit lost when key plot points zoom past too quickly to catch. The actors, while talented, sometimes can’t maneuver hairpin changes of attitudes when Mercurio’s script and score don’t give the cast enough stage time for the moments to land with the audience.

High marks go to the evocative environment by set designer Michael Schweikardt, projection designer Aaron Rhyne and lighting designers Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeagar. Choreographer Joshua Rhodes has given the cast moves that don’t seem overly out of place and he inventively employs textbooks as props.

The cast is comprised of adequate actors. All have pleasing voices although Wyse, among others, sounded like he missed dozens of notes in the early going of the performance.

The real villain of the night was the abysmal sound ‘ a crippling problem for a show in which the audience has never heard the lyrics or knows the plot twists.

It’s a challenge to begin with that Mercurio has three or four people singing different lyrics at the same time, although Sondheim shows do it all the time. But here the sound was so poor that the words sometimes came out as indecipherable mush. A key problem, but not the only one, was microphones were cued in a few words, even an entire line after characters started singing. This is a disaster when a’character sings a single line and then hands the song off to the next singer.

The struggle to understand the words prevented some audience members from giving themselves over completely to a musical that speaks to everyone’s common experience, even when it’s Boyz II Men set in the Ivy League.

Academy plays through Dec. 19 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $43-$60, available by calling 561-575-2223 or jupitertheatre.org. A select number of $15 student tickets are also available for groups of 10 or more for students 18 and under with valid ID.

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