It’s not that in 2019 gay teens don’t have coming-out issues. But “Becoming Nancy,” a 1979-set musical premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, feels dated, when not being clichéd, lackluster and preachy. It’s like an Afterschool Nothing-Special.
It’s a case of best intentions, with positive role models and an uplifting ending proving insufficient when basics such as characters, dialogue and plotting offer little in the way of wit, surprise or enchantment. The top Broadway talents that helm this commercially enhanced production here — led by director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and designer David Rockwell — are far from the top of their game.
Based on a young adult novel by Terry Ronald, the show (with a book by Elliot Davis) follows a 17-year-old musical-loving boy named David (Zachary Sayle) who, in the midst of navigating his sexual identity, is cast as Nancy in a British school production of “Oliver!” Because his few female classmates have terrible voices, see?
Before you can sing “As Long as He Needs Me,” David — think Billy Elliot with a Broadway fixation — accepts the juicy part. But he soon falls under the spell of Maxie (Jake Boyd), a handsome, self-assured jock who is cast as Bill Sykes in the popular Dickensian musical. (There aren’t any numbers from that luscious score, though songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have some fun referencing just enough notes for a playful tease.)
Besides his seemingly unrequited crush, David has to deal with being relentlessly harassed by schoolmates. At home, his father (Matt Hetherington) longs for a more butch lad while his in-denial mum (Sally Ann Triplett) designs his dress and sighs at her exasperated husband. Only David’s Aunt Val (Jessica Vosk, very good), his sympathetic drama teacher (Stephen Ashfield, ditto) and best gal-pal Frances (Jasmine Rogers) — who is black and also taunted as another “outsider” — show him any support.
Then there’s the odd insertion — and repeated return cameos — by actors as Sting, Debbie Harry, Gladys Knight and Kate Bush, which add little to the show when they’re not simply annoying.
Performances mostly rise above the material. Sayle is likable in the leading role, but his amusing rapport with the audience and plucky way with a song can’t substitute for brighter writing. The appealing Boyd makes Maxie’s ease with life’s challenges a delight — until his character reaches his own personal identity crisis.
The other roles are underwritten and obvious to a fault, which echoes many of Drewe’s lyrics, though the title song is a clever pleasure as is Maxie’s rouser, “I Don’t Care.” Oddly, the most moving musical moment comes from a pair of secondary characters — David’s aunt and a schoolmate (Lizzie Bea) who has the hots for David — in the bittersweet “On the Night Bus.” But many of the others are sticky with sentiment, full of handwringing or too on-the-nose in their villainy.
Unlike the deft mixture of sweet and sassy that “The Prom” brought to Broadway after its Alliance premiere two years ago, future prospects here are iffy unless “Nancy” starts becoming dramatically better.