“Academia Nuts” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (Closed on Sunday July 13, 2014)

July 12, 2014 | NY Musical Theatre | Tags:
Book and Lyrics by Becca Anderson and Dan Marshall
Music by Julian Blackmore
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

With the sweetness of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the caustic humor of “South Park,” and the vitriol of “Hairspray,” the new musical “Academia Nuts” chronicles the quiz kid competition between the McCutter Clan of Weiner, Arkansas and the Walla Walla Walruses from the Pacific Northwest. The musical celebrates the strength of the human spirit and the importance of chasing ones dreams. However, “Academia Nuts” is a far darker comedy than its main plot belies and some of its subplots are more about dreams left unfulfilled and the considerable weakness of some humans.

Home-schooled Maggie McCutter (Alyse Alan Louis) needs to escape from the often abusive clutches of her mother Chrystal (Jennifer Simard). Winning the Chupacabra-sponsored National High School Quiz Bowl Championship is her way out of Arkansas. Maggie’s escape is compromised by her unexpected attraction to and relationship with team rival Tyler O’Neil (Khris Davis) who, through the course of the musical, emancipates Maggie from her maternal prison and all of its concomitant restrictiveness and from her limited understanding of live and love.

Along the way, the audience discovers the motivation for the Walruses to enter the Championship: the team’s coach Sergeant Tina Van Wyck (Stephanie D.Abruzzo) has a prior relationship to Chrystal and Maggie and Chrystal has a suspicious history with moderator Melvin Jessup (Todd Cerveris). “Academia Nuts” is chock full of game show references and other pop-culture innuendo which seem to set the audience howling. There is gender-bending, slap-stick comedy, and the requisite dream ballet (“Lord of the Flies). No Child Left Behind finds its way into the mix as do alcoholism and the bashing of the tenets of conservative Christian teaching (including the Rapture). Oddly, even homeschooling takes a hit.

In addition, there is an unfortunate fusillade of jokes which rely on stereotypes for their punch lines. Granted, this humor helps define Chrystal McCutter’s redneck weltanschauung but there are other ways to achieve characterization without being offensive. More on this later in the review. This downside to “Academia Nuts” is not the fault of its cast.

The young energetic cast handily navigates its way through the musical’s twenty-one songs with exceptional vocal and dance craft. Alyse Alan Louis (Maggie) brings honesty and energy to her “Please Let Me Win.” Khris Davis (Tyler) clearly defines his character in his plaintive “I Just Think of Favre.” Stephanie D’Abruzzo reveals Sergeant Tina’s secrets (and those of the McCutters) in her gripping second act “Soliloquy.” Alexander Ferguson (Dexter) and Alison Lea Bender (Mi Cha Kwak) rock the stage with Ms. Louis and Mr. Davis in the dynamic “Get It Crunk” song and dance routine.

Under Thomas Caruso’s careful direction, the ensemble cast captures the Garden of Eden moment when humankind seize the day, partake of the forbidden fruit, and discover for themselves who they are and who they were meant to be. James J. Fenton’s set is simple yet serviceable using rolling contestant stands that are able to function as other settings. Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes, Sam Gordon’s lighting design, and Andrew Keister’s sound design contribute to the success of the clever and innovative staging of “Academia Nuts.”

Marring the overall success of the musical are three unnecessary and unfortunate homophobic slurs. Granted these are meant to help define character; however the pejorative use of ‘gay,’ the use of ‘faggot,’ and the senseless and irresponsible reference to Harvey Milk to typify the attraction of one man to another is at best shameful. And the musical’s creative team needs to know that a male character (Melvin) falling in love with a transgender (male-to-female) character is not “switch-hitting.”

Despite this, the delicious conflicts of the rich characters drive an engaging and believable plot (and sub-plots) and all’s well that ends well In this sweet musical about coming to terms with one’s reality and chasing ones dreams.