Only a Lad
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 12, 2006
I wish I could say that Only a Lad, the new musical featuring the songs of '80s new wave band Oingo Boingo, is good. It's got some good things going for it—a professionally polished cast and a book by Andrew Loschert that smartly draws inspiration from several pop culture cornerstones. But, I ended up liking the idea of this show more than the finished product. Despite the things that work in its favor, Only a Lad has more strikes against it than anything else.
Set in 1984 Los Angeles, Only a Lad follows a typical high school class war between the popular kids and the outcasts, represented here as a roving band of vagabond dropouts. When the lead dropouts, Johnny and Ray, accidentally kill the school principal in a drunken hit-and-run, arrests are made and a media circus murder trial ensues. Complicating things is the romantic tension between Johnny and his ex, Mary, who is now dating the football team quarterback, Brett. Think West Side Story meets The Outsiders meets Law & Order meets every John Hughes teen comedy and you'll get an idea of what Only a Lad is like.
Which leads to one the show's biggest problems: is it a comedy or a drama? I'm not sure Loschert and director Rob Seitelman know. They try to have it both ways without committing to either. Their flashy production, complete with '80s style classroom video projections, full-blown dance numbers, and a four-piece band, seems most intent on garnering a commercial transfer.
Unfortunately, I suspect there is too much sloppy attention to detail here for such good fortune to materialize for Only a Lad, beginning with the most implausibly dressed school principal of all time: he looks like one of the teenagers, decked out in a short-sleeved button-down, skinny tie, and Vans! (The same actor later doubles as the judge, still wearing the Vans. WTF?!) Then there's the paucity of music to cover Only a Lad's increasingly leaden scene changes. Instead, the audience is treated to a steady parade of shuffling feet and furniture. Worst of all is the show's distractingly dismal sound quality. When a production is as loaded with body mikes and amplification as this one is, it's not asking too much for the sound to stay on when it's needed. Alas, a never ending list of snafus (at least at the performance I attended)—from scratchy microphone static to the sound cutting out on vocalists, but not the band, mid-song—plague Only a Lad.
This is too bad, since Oingo Boingo's songs adapt well to the musical theatre format. They tell more of a story, and are more interesting musically, than most of their '80s counterparts (not a surprise considering that their composer, Danny Elfman, is now one of the most successful movie composers around). And there are times in Only a Lad when song and scene match perfectly: "Wild Sex" becomes an expression of teenage lust and impulsiveness in a musical number set at a school mixer; "Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me" is turned into the jocks' smug admission of social entitlement. But, just as often songs are used in a strained context. This happens most noticeably when Johnny and Ray sarcastically sing "Little Girls," a pedophile's admission of naughty guilt, to the cops during their interrogation. Not a great idea.
Kudos to the heroic cast, who don't let anything shake them. Led by Barrett Hall (Johnny), Joey Calveri (Ray), and Victoria Dicce (Mary), they're a likable bunch with vocal chops galore. Most of them are too burdened down with the weight of carrying the show to have fun with it, though. Only the loony comic performances of ensemble members Todd Lawson, John Halbach, and Matthew Skrincosky, all playing multiple roles, hint at what Only a Lad could be.