Up front, the target demographic for Girls vs. Boys is much younger than the majority of folks who watched the rock musical’s South Florida debut Friday in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Yet audiences of all ages have embraced Spring Awakening, Rent, American Idiot and other shows with rock-infused scores and young characters. So thematically, Girls vs. Boys has a shot to work for anyone. Or it would, if only it were a better show.
Along the lines of a camel being a horse put together by a committee, the Arsht’s Girls vs. Boys is the product of a creative triumvirate. The script, music and lyrics come from the House Theatre of Chicago (book and lyrics by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen; music by Kevin O’Donnell and Allen). Executive producers are the Arsht’s Scott Shiller and the University of Miami’s Henry Fonte. Director J.V. Mercanti, musical director Greg Brown, choreographer Christine Kellogg, set designer K. April Soroko and costume designer Michiko K. Skinner are UM theater faculty members and/or part of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre creative team. Lighting designer Eric Haugen and sound designer Matt Corey are seasoned pros who work at numerous theaters.
The show’s high school characters are played by UM theater students, including some seniors who will soon enter the hope-filled, cutthroat world of professional theater. They’re being paid for their work in Girls vs. Boys, and the six leads persuasively play teens trying to cope with the emotional pressures of hooking up, popping pills, the end of an accidental pregnancy and more. The characters are superficial or deep, prone to roiling emotions and sex-tinged fantasy, and anyone who has lived through the teen years will recognize them.
Yet, as is often the case with newish musicals, Girls vs. Boys suffers from a weak book and not-so-hot lyrics, as when the angry almost Baby Daddy sings, “This is not my abyss to plumb.” Right. The music, as orchestrated by Brown and sung by the students, is fine and stylistically eclectic, but it can’t trump those other deficiencies, including the improbability of several characters’ relationships and reactions to each other.
Rachel Lipman plays the understandably moody Lane, the girl who opted for abortion, and she delivers a powerful solo on the defiant Thanks for Understanding, though she has to do it while being drenched in clichéd blood-red lights. The charismatic Luke Hamilton is Lane’s furious ex Krueger, a guy who’s hooking up with cheerleader-pretty Kate (Shannon Draper) even as he takes every opportunity (once after removing his shirt to become a faux rock god) to rage at Lane about her betrayal – yet the two are never made credible as a couple. The emotionally volatile loner Casey (Nick Ley) has a first-time sexual experience with Lane (both remain in their underwear) and afterwards seems ready to implode. Again, if Lane were believable, she’d run fast and far from a guy who has gone off his meds and clearly needs serious, urgent psychiatric attention. As the pill-popping, six-pack sporting George, Kyle Axman pursues Casey’s hot-to-trot little sis Sam (Samantha Drucker), a predictably dangerous decision.
A couple of the fantasy sequences become giggle inducing, as Kate’s tutorial on seducing Krueger ( Lollipop) turns into a Vegas-style revue and George’s desire for companionship ( Sleep Alone) comes complete with cheerleaders. The kids drop plenty of f-bombs (they are, after all, supposed to be real high school students), yet despite content warnings outside the theater, a little boy in the audience was subjected to all that sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll stuff on opening night.
Girls vs. Boys has compelling moments, thanks to the professional and student talent involved. But this one doesn’t belong in the company of those successful rock musicals. In its worst moments, it looks like something dreamed up by the Bad Idea Bears from Avenue Q.