nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
August 14, 2009
The aims of the new FringeNYC musical VOTE! are admirable: to create a fun, accessible, and energetic musical about a high school election that explores more serious issues to do with the democratic process. Unfortunately, in its current incarnation, the show's success is only piecemeal. It succeeds best as a showcase for its phenomenally talented cast and director, but as a story—and a show—it simply doesn't feel complete.
The story of VOTE! focuses on Muffin Pasquinelli, a popular cheerleader with dreams of becoming a stewardess. However Muffin's mom has other plans for her: she must go to an Ivy League school, and in order to do this, she must run for class president. Muffin's opponents for class president are the evil, Richard Nixon-obsessed nerd Mark Boyd and Nikki Murphy, the idealistic daughter of a single mother who constantly works to help the less fortunate. The voice of authority in all this is the high school's "cool" government teacher, Ms. Venora Fowler.
Conceptually, Ryann Ferguson's book is clever in drawing parallels between the hijinks of high school politics and that of actual politics, whether it's affairs, blackmail, or even the odd mass riot. However, structurally Ferguson's book and lyrics take plot turns that make it hard to connect with the characters and what they're going through. After establishing the main rivalry between Muffin and Mark—and having Mark nefariously break apart the friendship of Muffin and her best friend Trish—the show veers off course. Instead of exploring the established relationships, VOTE! goes on to expand the role of Nikki Murphy, a relatively minor character up to that point. Nikki's character is far more sympathetic than everyone else's and her struggles feel more real than the other characters'—which makes it hard to return to Muffin being the central character of the piece.
Story aside, though, each of the principal characters is given a big number to show off their stuff, and each of them makes the most of it. (Music and additional lyrics are by Steven Jamail). Broadway veteran Deidre Goodwin, as the imposing Ms. Fowler, knows how to command the stage, and her big number "Hands of a Surgeon" shows off Goodwin's ample talents as a singer and a dancer. The most touching performance, however, comes from Sasha Sloane as Nikki Murphy. Sloane is heartbreakingly earnest, in a way that helps ground the show. Unfortunately, she only shows up in a major way halfway through the show, and only to sing the very unfortunate number "Just Black Enough," an anthem to Nikki's black heritage that is merely confusing.
Regardless, the message of VOTE! is a positive one: "You may not like who won, but you at least got to vote." It's a sentiment at the core of what America was founded upon, and something that can get lost amidst the nonsense that occurs in both high school and actual politics. It's great to see a show that attempts to tackle this topic in a way that feels fun and accessible. I only hope in future incarnations VOTE! will be more successful in doing this.