With the success of Broadway's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, among other shows, and given that Generations X and Y seem to have never recovered from the trials and traumas of junior high, a post-punk, post-ska, pop-rock musical about, as publicity materials describe it, "love in the eighth grade" probably seemed to be a strong idea. Despite its promise, though, Shawn Northrip's Lunch, part of the New York Musical Theater Festival, fell short in production. Many of the songs are clever ("A Change in Me"), and a few of them ("Dead Dad") come close to capturing the kind of anarchic adolescent energy Northrip was apparently aiming for. Yet the tongue-in-cheek style that pervades the show fails to capture how very serious adolescence seems when you're in the middle of it. We are supposed to laugh at these characters because we recognize ourselves in them, but the show spends so much time pushing the "look how ridiculous they all are" angle that it's hard to have any empathy. One notable exception, the almost jarringly touching "For Mikey," sung by Ben (Rich Hollman), is written—and was performed—with such irony-free sincerity that it threw the rest of the production's superficiality into sharp relief.
The two-dimensional, caricature-like style adopted by most of the cast only exacerbated this problem; when adult actors play kids, it's all too easy for them to come across as condescending toward their characters' emotions. The actors were mostly in fine voice, but some had difficulty keeping up with the relentless, drum-driven pace of the music.
The show's narrative strategy is a surprising departure from the musical theater rulebook. After each exchange of dialogue, a short song expands on, and makes a joke out of, the characters' emotions but never moves the plot forward. I can only assume this was a deliberate move by Northrip, who holds a graduate degree from N.Y.U.'s Musical Theater Writing program and is the author of the well-regarded Titus X. Nevertheless, it felt like a major flaw.
Lunch probably came across as very funny at the early read-throughs and workshops. A paying audience and a full production, however, demand more from a show than potential. Lunch serves as a sometimes uncomfortable reminder that what seems brilliant and hysterically funny when shared with friends over a bottle of wine can still fall flat when the lights dim and the curtain rises.