There’s another “High School Musical” out there, and, though it may not have the power or ubiquity of the Disney phenom, it’s a delightful entry into the young adult market that should find many more stages to come. Written by triple-hyphenate Barry Wyner, a young talent of exceptional skill and promise, “Calvin Berger” is a contemporary take on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story, set in an American high school.
At least it starts out using the classic material as a jumping off point to speak about adolescent insecurities and secret romances. Script troubles occur in the second act when it veers off on its own, turning into a very special episode of “Saved by the Bell.” But for a good deal of the fast-moving production, the tuner’s charms are many, with a bright and quick-witted score and a quartet of engaging performances.
Following its preem last year at Gloucester Stage (Massachusetts), the show is being given a major revision at Barrington Stage’s Musical Theater Lab. The series is overseen by composer William Finn, whose “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” bowed at Barrington three summers ago. Now in its second year, the Lab targets new tuners by up-and-comers, giving them no-frills productions on its basement stage.
“Calvin Berger” has some of the same school-can-be-hell spirit as “Spelling Bee,” also zeroing in on every teen’s inner angst, whether it’s a young Adonis lacking verbal skills, a beauty who feels her “it” isn’t enough, a wise-gal fixated on the size of her ass, or the bright, witty kid who thinks his nose is too big (but it could all be in his mind).
It’s a theme we’ve seen before but Wyner makes it fun as a set-up before the “Cyrano” hook takes hold. When Calvin (David Perlman) helps dumb hunk Matt (Aaron Tveit) woo Rosanna (Elizabeth Lundberg), whom Calvin secretly adores, the musical soars. “We’re the Man” is a glorious ode to this new buddy alliance, followed by a terrific interlude in which Calvin helps Matt remember his love lines via the pulse and poetry of rap. “Never Know” and “More Than Meets the Eye” are two songs that beautifully address characters’ private yearnings.
The thrill of the scheme, the wondrous effect of romantic words, the optimism of youth and the poignancy of unrequited love all add up to a potent combo — for most of the show. But midway in the second act the “Cyrano” structure is dropped, the relationship threads unravel in inelegant ways and the show takes a sitcom turn, culminating in a bachelor auction.
Although there’s clever use of laptops, iPods, text messaging (Apple should be an investor in the show) and topical cultural references (Jackie Chan, Tim Burton, movies-on-demand), tuner could come from any high school era, absent of spring awakenings or serious strife.
There’s a nice attempt to have another love-from-afar relationship with Calvin’s best friend Bret (Gillian Goldberg), who pines for the otherwise engaged hero. But that pairing is underdeveloped and the Bret character is too strident to provide an audience-satisfying conclusion.
But the quartet of performers and helmer-choreographer Stephen Terrell keep it all active and captivating. Perlman is thoroughly likable as the 17-year-old “smart-but-not-a-nerd” Calvin, a character Woody Allen or Neil Simon used to knock off with regularity. It’s easy to see why Lundberg’s lovely, natural Rosanna is the object of affection for both Calvin and Matt, while Tveit is a handsome lead who fearlessly presents himself as an utterly charming fool.
Despite the flaws, the show should have widespread appeal — especially for young auds — proving by a nose to be a winner.