F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing is often criticized for being a triumph of wit and style over any real substantive meaning. While that may well be in dispute among literary critics, it certainly seems to have been taken to heart by the writers of the new musical The Underclassman, presented by Prospect Theater Company and based on Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. The songs in this charming show are full of wit and style, with lyrical jokes aplenty from the talented Peter Mills. Fitzgerald, however, is also well regarded for his economical storytelling, an area where this show has not followed the model of its subject. The musical outstays its welcome by a good 15 minutes, with a serious subplot involving war in France and the likely death of a class of Princeton graduates.
But, in spite of the length problem, the show displays some excellent work on all counts. Matt Dengler (A Little Night Music) does yeoman's work as Fitzgerald, commanding the stage on which he spends most of his evening, and capturing nicely the hopeful romanticism and energy of the young writer. He is ably supported by Billy Hepfinger as Edmund "Bunny" Wilson and Marrick Smith as JP Bishop, his Princeton roommates and best friends. The object of Fitzgerald’s obsession, Ginevra King, is beautifully played by Jessica Grové (Les Miserables), who brings with her enough style and elegance necessary to captivate an entire class of Princeton men. She has some lovely chemistry with Piper Goodeve (Anne of Green Gables) as her best friend.
The staging, by co-book writer Cara Reichel, is remarkably fluid and keeps things moving. The show contains some elaborate musical sequences, carried off in great style, that often tell the story better than the dialogue. If there are some occasionally anachronistic moments in the dancing, that can be forgiven in that Fitzgerald was himself a considered a trendsetter. And when the numbers are as alternately charming as "Letters to Boys", which the Westover girls sing as they plan their romantic conquests, fun as “A Trip to the Seaside” and ambitious as “The Blue Slip” one cannot help but be impressed. The latter song brilliantly takes the audience through six months of action in just a few minutes, as we watch the world of a young man with too many balls in the air crumble before us.
My only wish for the show is that Mills and Reichel had taken to heart the words they wrote for the roommates to thank Bunny for his friendship in the penultimate scene: "Thank God you're our editor and prevent us from running on". Sage words indeed for a show that displays great promise.
The Underclassman, with music and lyrics by Peter Mills, and book by Mills and Cara Reichel, performs at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 W. 42nd Street). Cara Reichel directs, with choreography by Christine O’Grady, and music direction and orchestrations by Daniel Feyer. The show Matt Dengler, Jessica Grové, Piper Goodeve, Marrick, and Billy Hepfinger, Jordan Bondurant, Elizabeth Burton, Jason Edward Cook, Ian Fairlee, Matt Gibson, Holland Grossman, Christopher Herr, Adam Machart, Drama Desk nominee Jeremy Morse, C.J. Pawlikowski, Davey Rosenberg, Michael Romeo Ruocco, Liz Shivener, and Whitney Winfield. For information and tickets go to www.dukeon42.org/Shows
At the Duke on 42nd St through November 30.