The aspirational new musical at The Duke on 42nd Street works on a number of levels. Peter Mills with Cara Reichel cast a version of a young Scott Fitzgerald, the Princeton underclassman of the title. He is brash and ambitious and all too aware that he is not “to the manor born.” His middle class family earned its money, and while he did prep, it was not at Andover. This Scott (Matt Dengler) determines to make up for his lack of ‘class’ with his wit. He’s a climber.
On a broader scale, Mills, like all contemporary composer/lyricists, aspires to sound like Sondheim. He opens The Underclassman with the young Fitzgerald on an empty stage speaking directly to the audience of what an artist wants:
To feel life so desperately that he would find a new way to say it.
Then singing: A bare stage …A blank page…A tale that no one’s told.
A ‘tip of the hat’ perhaps to Sondheim’s more eloquent Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park with George (Look, I made a hat…where there never was a hat…)
There are moments, if only moments, when Mills steps up to that standard. The Princeton boys of the exclusive Cottage Club meet, to decide if they’ll welcome–or blackball–“the Irish kid.” In a terrific, noisy number these young men of privilege flaunt their punishing exclusivity. They stomp around the stage, reeking with a nasty brand of testosterone, singing:
Cause everyone judges and carries their grudges,’cause all of us hanker for malice and rancor.
This is a period piece set in 1915-1917. The war in Europe looms to be sure but the boy and boys of our story are snug within Princeton’s archways thickly vined, more engaged in the Triangle Club’s annual musical than in geopolitics.
Scott makes the grade with both the Cottage Club and the Triangle musicals leaving one more aspiration. He must win Ginevra King (Jessica Grove), “…one of the top four debutantes of her generation….” For her part, Ginevra is desperate to “...break a heart or two…” before she marries, which she understands to be her destiny.
Dengler and Grove make a pretty couple; in their challenging solos they mostly nail it. Dengler, with more to do, occasionally struggles to find the note but, does get there.
The program lists nineteen players, stars through chorus, but it seemed hordes more. So it is a tribute to choreographer Christine O’Grady and her assistant JP Qualters that while the Ensemble players serve as dancers at every party, the guests at the country house, and the lugs at the beach party, they seem to both multiply when needed yet never take a wrong step. The dancing is lively and fun, and pitch-perfect for the period.
With On The Town selling out down the block, there’s a nifty little homage to Comden and Green’s Brunhilde Esterhazy–the less than pretty girl with the snappy patter. In The Underclassman she’s “Bug”(Piper Goodeve), the debutante’s sidekick. She and “Bunny” Wilson (Billy Hepfinger) do a clever little number–Let’s Don’t–near the close of the first act that serves up that knowing, second banana sensibility and the audience loves it…and them.
The themes, if you will, “the artist’s plight is not an easy one,” “convention conquers love,” “college is a halcyon time we will not see again”–hardly have you on the edge of your seat.
That said–getting down to it–The Underclassman is a lot of fun. The music is rich enough, though the voices are uneven. The eight musicians tucked away just above the stage are sublime. Conductor Daniel Feyer and his gang deliver period sound, Sondheim-ish atonals, and even noisy jumbles to help transition scenes.
All in all, it’s a tidy package and I suggest you buy a ticket.
The Underclassman – Music and lyrics by Peter Mills, book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel; directed by Cara Reichel
WITH: Matt Dengler (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Billy Hepfinger (“Bunny”), Jessica Grove (Genevra King), Piper Goodeve (“Bug”), Marrick Smith (John Peale Bishop/ “JP”), Jeremy Morse (A. Hamilton Samuels/ “Ham”), Jordan Bondurant (Trip Everett), Davey Rosenberg (Wilton Darby), Matt Gibson (Ellis Griffin), Ian Fairlee (Freddy Forgan), Jason Edward Cook (Clive Bagby), Christopher Herr (Tyler Pierce). The Ensemble: Elizabeth Burton, Holland Grossman, Adam Machart, CJ Pawlikowski, Michael Romeo Ruocco, Liz Shivener, Whitney Winfield. The Band: Daniel Feyer (piano, conductor), Jeremy Clayton (flute, piccolo, clarinet, alto sax), Josh Johnson (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax), John Blevins (trumpet), Darius Christian Jones (trombone), Yury Shubov (violin, viola), Dennis Michael Keefe (bass), Jeff Roberts (drums, percussion).
Designed by Ann Bartek, Brian Tovar did the lighting, Kevin Heard the sound and Sidney Shannon handled costumes. Christine O’Grady choreographed and Taylor Alyssa Marun is the stage manager.
Presented by Prospect Theater Company at The Duke, 229 W42nd Street, Manhattan 646-223-3010, through November 23rd. Running time 2 hours 30minutes with one intermission.