Imagine High School Musical without the soul or Glee with less profundity and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of Liberal Arts, a new musical that follows a group of college freshmen through their first year in what distinctly feels like real time.
Set at the fictional Secular Liberal Arts College—perhaps inspired by the authors’ alma mater, Minnesota’s Carleton College—the piece trains its eye on the expected foibles: drunken hookups, sudden breakups, sexiling. The songs (“I Didn’t Do the Reading,” “The Facebook Song”) are poppy, mediocre and indistinguishable, but they’re a welcome respite from the dialogue, which is often eye-clawingly bad. One scene features a character analyzing what might motivate a girl to post provocative pics on Facebook. Options include “nostalgia,” “art” and a need for “validation.” The scene goes on for ages, it’s vaguely offensive, and it lacks even a hint of wit.
The staging doesn’t help matters much. The orchestra (five pieces, including two keyboards and a keytar) often overwhelms the voices, and the seating arrangement (audience on both sides) promises that we lose even more of the words. The cast is enthusiastic, and some have legitimate chops. Over two hours in, though, I found myself intrigued not by the competent actors in Type A roles (most of them), but by the very odd ensemble member Chad Michael Innis, whose bulging eyes and awkward lope added some quirk to an otherwise beige evening.