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A CurtainUp Review
The Underclassman

A bare stage
A blank page
A tale that no one's told

— Scott, setting the scene with "The Start of a Story" in this bildungsroman musical about the ambitious young F. Scott Fitzgerald's efforts to find his literary voice as he makes his way into Princeton's inner circle and tries to win the heart of Chicago's top debutante.
The UnderclassmaN
Jessica Grové and Matt Dengler (Photo by Kayla David)
Peter Mills has written over twenty terrific songs (many with nods to the musical theater's best songsmiths) for this story about a young F. Scott Fitzgerald finding his voice and way into the pre-World War I elite inner circle of Princeton. By the time Mills attended Princeton it was no longer an all-male preserve so unlike Fitzgerald's dream girl, debutante Ginevra King, who was enrolled at an exclusive girls' school, Mills met the girl of his dreams, Cara Reichel, right on campus in the early '90s. Unlike Fitzgerald's go-nowhere romance, they married and merged their creative talents to found the Prospect Theater Company.

The Underclassman's 2004 workshop version, The Pursuit of Persephone, was actually my first encounter with this gifted pair's work. I was delighted to hear that a fine-tuned and re-named version of that delightful show had found its way to one of New York's nicest off-Broadway venues, the Duke on 42nd Street. I'm happy to report that the show's strongest suite — the lovely, syncopated score and smart lyrics — is still in place. In fact it sounds better than ever with Daniel Feyer's 8-piece orchestra now high above the space and thus not tending to drown out some of the lyrics. There's even a delectable new number, "Improvisation."

The biggest improvement of the updated book is that the intrusive presence of an older Scott to narrate the show has been eliminated. Instead of the awkward flashback structure, the current version sticks to the 1915 to 1917 period during which the story unfolds and uses the young Scott as narrator. The essential story line is otherwise the same. To quote from my review of the original:
In 1913 a young Midwestern Princeton undergraduate named F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first show for the famous Triangle Club. He also fell in love with a debutante named Ginevra King. Though Ginevra proved to be forever beyond his reach some might argue that he didn't really lose her since she became his role model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and her side of their two-year correspondence {which he failed to destroy as promised} saw life in the pages of some of his short stories. The whole cliquish Ivy League social scene on the cusp of World War One inspired Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise.
The show once again achieves Mills and Reichel aim stated in the workshop program's notes, "to capture the sense of the ephemeral nature of youth and passion." They continue true that aim and in so doing have brought Fitzgerald and his Princeton friends to vivid life. Most notable among these are, his best buddies Edmund Wilson and JP, aka John Peale Bishop achieved literary renown — Wilson as a critic and Bishop as a poet whose work included an elegy to Fitzgerald entitled "The Hours."

Despite the structural improvements,however, the show still suffers from not having a substantial enough story to warrant a two and a half hour run time. Smartly staged as it is, I wish Reichel had found a way to lose about half an hour. Fun to watch as Christine O'Grady's era perfect dance and drag sequenes are, some astute nips and tucks wouldn't hurt. Another time saver would have been to end at least some of the musical numbers with a quicker, more fluid transition back to the text based plot rather than with the current full stops for applause. "A Trip to the Seaside" which opens the second act would benefit from drastic trimming and, since it really seems to distract from rather than add to Scott's story, it wouldn't really be missed if deleted.

But enough fault finding. The Underclassman is a first-class entertainment. Its enjoyable elements exceed its shortcomings. It offers a chance to see a big show (19 cast members!) in an intimate space which puts everyone in a premium seat. And the cast sings and dances with verve with particularly sparkling performances from the two principles: Jessica Grové, who also charmed as the debutante in the workshop production , and Matt Dengler as Scott.

Piper Goodeve, another veteran of the original, is terrific in the second banana role of Genevra's friend Marie. Her "Let's Don't" duet with the Bunny,a.k.a. Edmund Wilson (an ideally cast Billy Hepfinger) is irresistible. Marrik Smith brings great warmth the studious, poetry spouting JP. His and Scott's "A Place Apart" is one of the shows top ballads.

Though there's no Broadway-ish razzle dazzle, scenic designer Ann Bartek evokes the collegiate atmosphere by framing the set wth an arched proscenium and just enough movable props for the ensemble to handle without fuss. Plenty of razzle dazzle, however, courtesy of Sidney Shannon's era defining costumes.

One opportunity missed is to hear these scintillating songs delivered without the body mikes that have become a necessity in big Broadway house. At least the main performers seem to have the vocals not to wear little head mikes. Again, I may be nitpicking, since those little buggers do insure that we can appreciate Mr. Mills' witty lyrics.

Other Musicals by Prospect Theater Company
Golden Boy of The Blue Ridge -2013
Honor -2008
The Flood- 2006
The Iron Curtain-2006
Ilyria- 2004 The Pursuit of Persephone -2004

Works by other musical teams produced by Prospect:
Unlocked- 2013
Working -2012
Hiden Sky - 2010
Blue Flower- 2006
Nymph Errant -2006

The Underclassman
Music and lyrics by Peter Mills, book by Mills and Cara Reichel
Directed by Cara Reichel
Choreography by Christine O'Grady
Music direction and orchestrations by Da
Cast: Matt Dengler as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jessica Grové as Ginevra King, Piper Goodeve as Marie Hersey, Marrick Smith as John Peale Bishop, Billy Hepfinger as Edmund Wilson. The ensemble includes Jordan Bondurant , Elizabeth Burton , Jason Edward Cook , Ian Fairlee, Matt Gibson , Holland Grossman , Christopher Herr , Adam Machart , C.J. Pawlikowski , Davey Rosenberg, Michael Romeo Ruocco , Liz Shivener , and Whitney Winfield.
Sets: Ann Bartek
Costumes: Sidney Shannon
Lighting: Brian Tovar
Sound: Kevin Heard
Stage Manager:
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Prospect Theater Company at The Duke on 42nd Street
' From 11/09/14; opening 11/19/14; closing 11/30/14.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/20 matinee performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • To Beat the Band /Scott
  • To Beat the Band (Reprise) / Ginevra, Partygoers
  • Princeton Lives in You / JP, Trip, Ham, Ellis, Wilton & Ensemble
  • Class/ Scott, Edmund, JP
  • Letters to Boys / Marie, Ginevra, Ensemble
  • If Only/ Trip, Scott
  • The Black Ball/ Trip, Ham Wilton, Ellis, Ensemble
  • Improvising/Scott, Genevra
  • A Place Apart / JP, Scott
  • Paradise for Now/ Ensemble
  • Let's Don't / Edmund, Marie
  • Paradise for Now (Reprise/ Company
Act Two
  • A Trip to the Seaside/Trip, Ham, Wilton Ellis, Scott, Edmund, Clive, Freddy & Girls
  • Invitation / Ginevra
  • The Rich Are Different/
  • Ensemble
  • Half and Half/ Genevra
  • The Blue Slip / Company
  • The Pursuit Of Persephone / Clive, Wilton, Freddy
  • Half and Half (Reprise/ Genevra
  • Poseidon Myself / Edmund
  • When I Rembember You / Scott
  • Consolation / Marie, JP
  • Les Jeunes Filles/Finale / Scott, Ensemble
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