Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: GENERATION ME Tackles Important Teen Issues

Milo Manheim and Anabella Ronson-Benenati. All photos by Shane Alan Bradley

Two years ago this teen musical was one of the best new works to come through Hollywood. Its young writers Julie Soto, Ryan Warren, and composer Will Finan had found a way to tell a story about teen suicide that was relatable to both youth and adults alike. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare; the thought of your own child suffering in silence and one that also speaks to the isolation that persists among many adults as well.

The original cast consisted of an exceptional group of teens, many of whom had been with show from the very beginning. Their commitment to telling the story truthfully made it so much more than the sum of its parts. It was a great example of how the right people telling the right story can move an audience with their honesty. For that reason, I was interested in seeing how the musical had evolved.

Both the 2014 production and the current version were directed by Ryan Warren and the scenic design is much the same, but with the addition of TV screens that track the social media reactions of the characters. The screens are a great idea but would have had more impact if they were larger and set further downstage. The staging, from what I remember, is basically the same and while I’m told the story has had some edits, they weren’t large enough to be noticeable.

The biggest change is the production’s cast. These LA-based young actors have had significantly less rehearsal which has resulted in more generalized performances: now I’m sad so I’ll look at the floor, now I’m mad so I’ll yell. Perhaps that is the challenge when a new cast picks up roles that have been essentially written for another group of actors. It doesn’t work to simply repeat what they did; one’s actions must be grounded in one’s own truth or the characters end up superficial and ultimately less likable.

Chelsea Fitzsimmons and Ian Ferrell

Another challenge using LA actors whose training and credits favor film & TV is that they also, almost without exception, assume a film style of acting on stage that has consequences for the audience. The dialogue and singing are so quiet you can’t hear them (no body mics are used). The sound engineer compensated by lowering the volume of the pre-recorded tracks for Act II, but the actors then lowered their volume even further. Cue pick-up was slow and scene changes sloppy, which created an overall pacing problem.

Stage is a different medium. It requires different skills and a different kind of physical energy from an actor. What works for one does not always work for the other.

Milo Manheim and Will Meyers

As a teaching piece, Generation Me has a lot to say about the issues teens face such as peer pressure, bullying, suicide, and sex. Milo Manheim (Milo Reynolds) and Will Meyers (Cody Bennett) create a realistic relationship that follows the ups and downs of best friend-ship as do Manheim and Anabella Ronson-Benenati in their accidental alliance formed on the “outcast” patio.

When we reach the final emotional choral number “Find My Way” – powerfully staged in its simplicity – it is the kind of theatrical moment that can extricate a tear from even the most resistant heart.

Like most real life tragedies, not all of GenMe’s questions are answered, and that’s a wise decision by the writers. Not tying up all the loose ends creates a space for continuing dialogue about these all-important issues. And if that means one young person who feels hopeless can consider another option, it has done its work.

Julia Nightingale and Johnny Lee

September 16 – October 9, 2016
Hudson Mainstage Theatre 
6539 Santa Monica Blvd 
Hollywood, CA  90038
Ticket Link
No late seating. Recommended for ages 13 and older.

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