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Keeping It Real

by Kathryn Geurin on July 28, 2011

Hello Out There

The first person ever to conduct Internet securities fraud—manipulating Wall Street from a dial-up connection in his New Jersey home—was 15 years old. This tidbit may not sound like prime musical-theater fodder. But writer-composer team Eric Price and Frank Terry, who were teenagers themselves when the landmark incident occurred, crafted Hello Out There, currently playing at Adirondack Theater festival, about exactly that.

The musical uses fictional characters and invented scenarios to dramatize the “footnote in financial history,” and to examine the ethical quagmire of the stock market, which crashed, in an unexpectedly lucky turn for the creative duo, soon after they’d begun drafting the script, making the material immediately and irrefutably relevant. But, says Price in an interview in the ATF season program, within that context the show aims to address the “very human topics” of growing up, first love and friendship.

Hello Out There opens on a spare white stage, with only an armchair, TV and two moveable partitions flanking Caleb Levengood’s vaguely interior, very malleable set, the entirety of which serves as a canvas for Joel Silver’s projections and lighting. At opening the set is washed in the chaotic rush of the stock-market ticker, and the simple set is effectively and subtly transformed from middle-class suburban bedroom to shopping mall to cramped apartment, to Wall Street high-rise, with digital, virtual ease.

Into this landscape, Price and Terry inject three 14-year-olds from New Jersey, the nerdy, stock-market-obsessed Kevin (Alex Brightman), his best friend and computer geek David (F Michael Haynie) and the popular, brash Camden (Emma Galvin), an unlikely trio who innocently con their way to $800,000, defraud Andrei (Frank Vlastnick), a sympathetic immigrant taxi-driver out of his life savings, and garner a knock on their door from Wendy Eikenberry (Liz Larsen), a prosecutor with the SEC.

The cast is, across the board, exceptionally skilled, their performances vibrant, and their vocal work powerful—powerful enough to fill the Wood Theater house without heavy amplification, which caused a few feedback issues and caustic musical moments with the otherwise beautifully performed score.

Composer Frank Terry has a knack for big energetic numbers, memorable motifs and complex, exquisite harmonies, and Eric Price couples the tunes with clever lyrics. The show-opener “Up, Up, Up” kicks things off with a catchy melody, creative exposition and imaginative staging.

Choreographer Wendy Seyb steers the movement in the distinctly contemporary piece toward a very old Broadway follies style; perhaps it is an effort to evoke a sense of timelessness, but it was an inneffective choice for a modern play that already skirts the limits of broadness. Director Benjamin Klein does guide his team, for the most part, to a cohesive and inventively staged interpretation of Price’s story, but at times succumbs to the pitfalls of the new script.

The central flaw of the show is that the emphasis is too heavy on clever and catchy. Musically, there is not a defined emotional arc, and the grand, showy numbers far outweigh the intimate ones. Lyrically, while specificity should be lauded, Price bogs the majority of the songs down with far too much explanation and far too little emotion, and a few too many witty rhymes about Netscape, Benneton, 409, and Micro-D shares.

There are delightful moments of period humor—David conducted the whistle and buzz of an early dial-up Internet connection like a grand symphony, to uproarious laughter. But the overt lyrics drive the story instead of illuminating the characters, their drives, doubts or journeys.

The best musicals have recognizable anthems, even hit songs, music that succeeds through its universality. Lifted from the context of their story, great musical numbers still express something significant about the shared experience of love or war or loss or betrayal or friendship or growing up.

With the exception of “Another Age,” which was exquisitely and sensitively performed by Larsen, and “Hold On,” which brought Blastnick and Brightman together for one of the show’s most intimate and thoughtful moments, the songs, while enjoyable and well-composed, would mean little outside the story, and do little to define the characters. The emphasis on wit and lack of lyrical sincerity paints—with the exception of Andrei and Wendy, whose voices in the score are distinct and whose numbers are revealing—somewhat caricatured portraits of what could be engaging, quirky and nuanced characters.

While there is much that works about the energetic, unconventional and admirably performed musical, the emotional core that should drive it—growing up, learning love, finding your place, discerning goodness in the moral quagmire our world has become—take a backseat to plot and witty market details.

Adirondack Theater Festival consistently makes the brave choice of tackling new work by emerging talents, and celebrates the opportunity to invest in thier potential and nurture their growth. Hopefully development will continue on this very promising musical, and, like its protagonists, Hello Out There will mature into its own complex humanity.