The creators of the zany musical The Yellow Wood have nabbed Robert Frost's classic poem "The Road Not Taken," splashed it with vivid surrealism and a quirky score, and spliced it into the life of an insecure Korean-American teenager. Sound a bit confusing? In their admirable attempt to give musical life to Frost's hallowed abstractions, Michelle Elliott and Danny Larsen have constructed a frothy surrealist show that eventually meanders into meaninglessness. Even before he heads off to school, Adam is smothered by choices. Will he take the time to memorize that poem for his English class? Will he sit with his little sister at lunch? Will he take his Ritalin? The answer to the last question, in particular, makes "all the difference" to Adam's day, and from the moment he hits school, reality dovetails with the bizarre. Are these dream-like sequences, which connect loosely to stanzas from Frost's poem, induced by Ritalin withdrawal? Or are we merely witnessing the fragmented thoughts of an ordinary, overly imaginative boy?
Frequently overwrought and definitely overlong, The Yellow Wood, part of this year's New York Musical Theater Festival, doesn't provide satisfying answers to these questions; nor are the questions posed very clearly. Instead, the scenes and songs unfold like a hazy (and lazy) mirage, grounded only by a handful of pitch-perfect performances from a terrific ensemble cast.
As the fidgety, troubled Adam, Jason Tam is a bundle of charm and energy. When the lights go up, he immediately explodes into a fiery monologue, which evokes the athleticism of the skateboard he clutches. His testy relationship with his overachieving but lonely sister, Gwen (the outstanding Yura Takara), is the production's highlight—their antagonistic relationship is lined (just barely) with love, providing a much-needed web of realism in this overly abstract plot. And as Adam's buddy, the irreverent Casserole, Randy Blair brings down the house (and the school cafeteria) with the powerhouse song "Tater Tot Casserole."
The Yellow Wood finally drowns in the many questions it poses. Why does Adam deny his Korean heritage? Will he become class president and lead the "nerds" to control the school? And as for the production itself, is it an anti-Ritalin tract, a celebration of overactive imaginations, or a theatrical experiment? By the time the piece ends, in a spate of warm and fuzzy self-empowerment, the oversimplified, reductive message only makes the rest of the show more confusing.
In the program notes, director and producer B.D. Wong writes that he saw the show as "a particularly psychedelic outlet to my rampant creative impulses." In his New York directing debut, Wong, an accomplished performer on stage and screen, clearly revels in this wacky material. He makes inspired use of yellow umbrellas and less successful use of an overhead projector in the spare production, but even clever technical twists are not enough to rescue this murky project. In this case, some roads are better left untraveled.