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The Underclassman. Duke on 42nd Street (see Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Peter Mills. Book by Mills and Cara Reichel. Directed by Reichel. With Matt Dengler, Jessica Grové. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
The Underclassman: In brief
Prospect Theater Company's Peter Mills and Cara Reichel rework the promising show they presented in 2005 as The Pursuit of Persephone. The story merges events from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s college years with elements from his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and varsity-drag musical vignettes from Princeton’s Triangle Club.
The Underclassman: Theater review by Adam Feldman
As a craftsman of pastiche songs in the Great American Songbook mode, Peter Mills is in a class of his own. Like a magician from the Penn & Teller school, he delivers all the standard tricks—Jazz Age styles and rhythms, internal rhymes, words whose meanings twist with repetition—while highlighting and deconstructing those same devices. In The Underclassman, a revision of the F. Scott Fitzgerald–themed musical that he, Cara Reichel and their Prospect Theater Company presented as The Pursuit of Persephone a decade ago, Mills pulls off these feats with astonishing wit and invention. “Improvising” is a flirtation song whose lyrics mirror its key changes; “If Only” is a quodlibet built around a central lyrical inversion; “Half and Half” explicitly sets the heroine’s confusion to a hybrid of foxtrot and waltz.
However: While the cleverness of Mills’s score is just dazzling, at a certain point it begins to seem just dazzling. In a show with no ambition beyond charm, the songs might be perfect, but The Underclassman has serious aims. Matt Dengler plays a young Fitzgerald, trying to rise above his humble background amid the snobbery of Princeton University in the 1910s; Jessica Grové is Ginevra King, a famous socialite whom he courts by mail. Reichel gives it a full-scale staging, with a very good cast of 19, a richly orchestrated eight-piece band and high-spirited dance numbers by Christine O’Grady (some performed in collegiate drag by characters in Princeton’s Triangle Club). Still, the musical often flags, and doesn’t manage to grab the heart, perhaps because of a void at its core: Fitzgerald and his romance are too callow to command interest. I wish the show as a whole were gold; but there is much to be said for its glitter.—Theater review by Adam Feldman
THE BOTTOM LINE The show may be less than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are marvelous.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam