It’s been encouraging in the past couple of weeks to visit two new musicals and hear something that so many titles of the past several decades have lacked: real lyrics. That is, words that rhyme, are neat, and contain clever, succinct, and/or expressive ideas. The Prom gave us “dealt/belt,” “alone/Peron,” and “famous/ignoramus,” and all in just one song. Now, in The Hello Girls, the World War I musical at 59E59 Theaters, we get “protocol/go to call,” “Passaic/formulaic,” and “tough/bluff/enough,” and in the service of some pretty cohesive song ideas, too. Literacy’s back on the rise—hooray!
If there can be too much of a good thing, the Prospect Theater Company’s production of the musical The Underclassman provides the evidence for it. It’s a reworking of a 2005 effort called The Pursuit of Persephone, by composer and lyricist Peter Mills and book writers Mills and Cara Reichel, that was itself an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. In what is clearly a labor of love on their part, the more favorably titled The Underclassman focuses on the college-age Fitzgerald's time at Princeton and his ill-fated romance with Ginevra King, a nationally desirable Chicago debutante.
The score is crammed with gorgeous melodies. The lyrics are sharp and rhyme as cleanly as those of any classic Broadway lyricist. Christine O'Grady's choreography is deft and appropriate. But the story—lower-class boy meets high-class girl, they fall for each other, then boy loses girl—is ultimately too thin and familiar to sustain a running time of more than two and a half hours (with intermission), even if the hero is a great American novelist, and even if one of his classmates is the future heavyweight literary critic Edmund "Bunny" Wilson (Billy Hepfinger), who can't seem to get Fitzgerald to meet a story deadline. Indeed, if Fitzgerald weren't the protagonist on the stage, one might not find as much patience for the endeavor.
Matt Dengler, a fine singer and actor, embodies Fitzgerald’s youthful energy and élan as well as the budding writer’s self-doubt and class consciousness. Jessica Grové is Ginevra, who flirts and captures the writer’s heart. Her motto is “I have to dance to beat the band.” She’s a charmer, but she’s also superficial and self-indulgent. She wants a husband who’s more than just solvent.
At Princeton, Fitzgerald wrote stories (for Wilson’s magazine) and scripts for the Triangle Club, the theater group. Several of the big numbers are Triangle shows that recall the frivolous musicals and revues of the period from the hands of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. But the score includes a range of melodic songs, from the sinister, all-male “Black Ball,“ to the comic love duet “Let’s Don’t.”
The Underclassman introduces many characters, all of them skillfully drawn and well-acted. Piper Goodeve is Ginevra’s lovelorn best friend, Marie Hersey (aka “Bug”), who is carrying a torch for Fitzgerald and who winds up finding solace with the often romantically clueless Wilson. The Triangle Club Boys include the handsome, dashing Trip Everett (Jordan Bondurant), who merits a tragic story line; the director of the group, “Ham” Samuels, played with cheery demeanor and peppy exhortation by Jeremy Morse; and Clive Bagby, (Jason Edward Cook), an eager opportunist who wants more important parts on stage.
Still, the musical doesn’t show Fitzgerald and his rich cronies as people of much depth. He’s a romantic and, in the tired old trope, “playing the game”—although Ginevra is far better at it. Wilson is a typically stolid second banana, and the crossed amours have been seen before. If you look past the glitter, the plot—the game of love turning unexpectedly real; the lovestruck boy reaching for the stars, as it were—is less than fresh.
Perhaps that’s why Marrick Smith, as the devoted John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald’s roommate, makes such a deep impression. J.P., whose future is poetry, struggles with leaving school and fighting in the war in Europe; he is also, possibly, a bit in love with Fitzgerald. Smith communicates depths of feeling and substance in glances and intonation throughout his performance that make his character more interesting than the main event. He points up the callowness of Fitzgerald, and he steals every scene he’s in.
Wilson finally gets a story from Fitzgerald that he can publish, and his assessment is: “It lacks structure; it lacks focus; it lacks brevity; and yet…the whole preposterous farrago is animated with life.” The Underclassman is in much better shape, though its length is unwieldy. It is splendidly sung and gorgeous to look at, but it needs trimming from a director who is not so attached to the material. The weight of the talent on display is too much for its modest shoulders to bear.
Tickets for The Underclassman are available online at Dukeon42.org or by calling (646) 223-3010. The show runs at the Duke, 229 42nd St., to Nov. 30. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday; at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24 (a Monday) and 25. There is no evening performance on Nov. 26 or 27. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Nov. 29, and 30; there is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Tuesday, Nov. 25.