Kansas City Repertory Theatre, in its latest bid to get to Broadway, has teamed up with Tony-winning producer Daryl Roth, whose extensive credits include Cindy Lauper’s blockbuster “Kinky Boots.”
The result is the world premiere of “Between the Lines,” a lavishly produced musical that opens the Rep’s 2017-18 season. I can’t say if this is the most expensive show in the Rep’s history. But it certainly looks it, thanks to spectacular costumes, elaborate scenic effects, sophisticated projections and a big cast.
Based on a popular young adult novel and its sequel by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer, the show contains a clever idea: What if storybook characters could see and talk to their readers? And what if the readers could enter the fairytale world that exists only on the page? The show is at its best when it embraces that idea and revels in the inherent absurdity of reality merging with fantasy.
But first we have to get there.
The central character is 17-year-old Delilah (played by New York actress Arielle Jacobs), an unpopular bookworm whose divorced mother cleans houses for a living while her father is off living the good life with a new spouse. At the school library she finds a children’s book that tells the story of Prince Oliver, who doesn’t like to fight and only reluctantly takes on the duties of saving Princess Saraphima from an evil sorcerer.
Delilah, burdened by her outcast status and the bullying of her peers, likes to retreat to the rooftop outside her bedroom window. There she immerses herself in the book, engrossed and unconcerned that the intended audience is a good deal younger. At one point, Prince Oliver (Broadway veteran Curt Hansen), appears onstage and speaks to Delilah. Amazed, Delilah responds. Thus begins an oddball, chaste romance which eventually leads Delilah to a better place.
The songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson for the most part dwell within the conventions of pop musicals. Some of the tunes are lovely. The lyrics are sometimes clever. But many of them acquire a generic feel as the show continues. With eleven numbers in the first act and 12 (including two reprises) in Act. 2, the show in its current form is begging for cuts.
The same goes for the book by Timothy Allen McDonald, who gives us a lot of story without enough plot movement. At times he loads up the dialogue with PG-13 cussing and mild sex jokes, which I imagine is an effort to make the show seem — what? Accessible? Hip? Current?
Jacobs has a sturdy pop-musical voice but on opening night she struggled to find Delilah’s center of gravity. As written, the long-suffering character at times is simply annoying. There are few opportunities for Jacobs to exert charm or humor. Hansen, on the other hand, makes a big impression as Oliver. He brings charisma, spontaneity and a welcome sense of humor to the stage.
Another New York actor, Danny Gardner, threatens to steal a number of scenes as Frump, a storybook character who through wizardry has been remade as half-man half-dog. Gardner contributes spot-on comic timing in a performance that shimmers with commitment and confidence. In Act 2, he wows the audience with a tap routine that is one of the highlights of the evening.
Another impressive Big Apple import is Morgan Siobhan Green, who plays Jules, a library friend and fellow social outcast. And Green impressively appears in Act 2 with Lexie Brie and Colleen Grate as mermaids who deliver a stirring soul-feminist anthem, the most exciting musical number in the show.
Among the supporting players we find Kansas City-based actors or performers who used to live here, all of whom make significant contributions. Doing double duty as Grace, Delilah’s mom, and Queen Maureen, Shanna Jones impressively shifts between a dramatic straight role and broad comedy. Tim Scott has fun as the wizard, Rapskullio, while also appearing as the high school psychiatrist. Emily Shackelford is double cast as high-school bully Allie McAndrews and Princess Saraphima. As the princess, she turns on her dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks schtick, which made me laugh out loud.
Julie Shaw first appears as a raucous high-school teacher and returns in a more sedate performance as the author of the book. Judy Simmons is fun to watch as the pun-happy school librarian. In the ensemble we see Taylor Avazpour, T. Eric Morris, Donovan Woods and Brianna Woods, all doing solid work.
Many of these performers have opportunities to shine thanks to one of the show’s funniest conceits: That when the fairytale book is closed, the characters can all kick back, head to the bar and let their hair down. Give me more absurdist humor and a little less teen angst, please.
The design team makes this production a visual feast. The lighting by Jason Lyons, Brad Peterson’s projections, Tobin Ost’s sleek and inventive sets and the spectacular costumes by Lindsay W. Davis create cogent, often magical environments.
Will “Between the Lines” find a home on Broadway? Anything is possible. Its artistic virtues are considerable, but in its current form it feels too long and sluggish.
“Between the Lines” runs through Oct. 1 at the Spencer Theatre on UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.