Sweet and Lowdown

F#%king Up Everything, an indie-rock musical with a split personality, has a lot of energy and talented performers giving their all in a plot that’s old hat. The complication of lovers pining for the wrong people was familiar when Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It premiered. Sam Forman and David Eric Davis's book addresses the trite situations with a mix of genuine wit and unexpected vulgarity. The overall impression is of young talents who just haven't harnessed their abilities quite yet, and director Jen Wineman hasn’t found a consistent tone for the show. The hero, a nerdy puppeteer “at an alternative preschool,” meets and falls for a sweet young woman, who is pursued by a rakish frontman for an indie rock band. A secondary plot involves a bespectacled young woman who yearns to be noticed by the band’s bleach-blond, pot-puffing guitarist, though she is best friends with the frontman.

Still, what matters in a musical is the score, and Davis’s music and lyrics deliver pleasing melodies in a variety of genres—from torch song to love ballad to a Cole Porterish list song. (One notable exception is the opening number, which, in line with the title, sets a crass tone that belies much of the warmth and sweetness that follows). The book spans both high- and lowbrow humor, often winningly. Typical of the show’s split personality is that Christian’s puppets are all intellectuals: Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Cornel West. There’s an amusing joke about the puppet versions of Susan Sontag and Annie Liebovitz that manages to be both high-falutin’ and hilariously lewd, and a ballad about Arielle's anatomy that revels in tastelessness.

FUE’s biggest asset is a young cast of talented newcomers, though some, like Max Crumm, who plays the hero, Christian Mohamed Schwarzelberg, and was in the revival of Grease, are better known than others.

Crumm makes for an oddball leading man. As the lovelorn puppeteer, he has charm aplenty, and yet the character’s goofiness and insecurity are odd for a leading role. Of pretty girls who go after lead singers, he laments, “Why don’t they want a sweet, neurotic guy who makes his living doing puppet shows for small children?” Christian's comic persona is reinforced by the color and style combination in his clownish costumes (by Melissa Trn): one is hospital green slacks, a checked shirt, and blue pullover T. Although Crumm's role feels like that of a hapless sidekick, it's a pleasant surprise that he's the top banana, and he gives a performance that is physically agile and comically precise. He also sings well, notably in the love ballad “Juliana.”

That song is directed to a pretty young woman, Juliana (Katherine Cozumel), a new housemate to Ivy, who’s in a sort of relationship with the diffident Tony, a member of the rock band Ironic Maiden. Juliana and Christian bond over the fact that both were straights majoring in queer theory at their colleges—Sarah Lawrence and Bard, respectively—and the cute, puppy-dog intellectualism in their opening scene sets the predominant tone for their relationship. Crumm and Cozumel have a genuine chemistry, and their mutual attraction is believable if unusual. And Cozumel exhibits a nice, relaxed quality as Juliana; she also plays the ukulele and has a lovely singing voice.

The "cool" rebel who gives off the classic leading man air, however, is Jason Gotay as Jake, the Ironic Maiden frontman. Gotay finds the right balance of arrogance and egotism without ever being despicable. And then there’s Ivy, the bespectacled girlfriend of Tony, the drummer. She keeps trying to hook up with him, but he keeps putting her off with slacker aplomb. Douglas Widick makes the most of the hoary role of a drug-addled stoner, and George Salazar matches him as an even goofier presence in the band. Rounding out the cast is Lisa Birnbaum as Arielle, a tall vamp with an outsize libido and the power to make the band famous.

Wineman, who also choreographed, keeps the pace moving along smoothly, and in "Juliana" cleverly stages the attractive Cozumel as if she were a manipulated Barbie doll. Still, most of the surprises come in the melodically inventive score and the skillfully wrought lyrics. The cast makes the most of them and, with the occasional exception of Birnbaum, whose delivery is sometimes unclear, does them justice.

Deb O's set—a “hipster dive bar with wasted liberal arts grads,” as Christian calls it, is decorated with colored Christmas lights, hubcaps and various license plates. It's an inviting place, and a visit there will boost your spirits.

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