Angst: The New Teen Musical
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 15, 2007
When I was in high school, I remember watching a half-hour long syndicated television show every Sunday called Degrassi High. It dealt with high school themes such as breakups, depression, teen smoking, drinking, and pregnancy, in an earnest, well-thought out manner. The actors looked like kids that I knew in school and they all fit certain stereotypes: you had the "burnout," the over-achiever, the loner, the popular girl, etc. It was like watching a serialized version of the film The Breakfast Club with more characters.
Angst: The New Teen Musical fills all of the standard character requirements of Degrassi High by way of its obvious musical forefather Rent. Thankfully, what distinguishes Angst from other attempts at this genre is twofold: the entire show is not only performed by actual high school students (as opposed to twentysomethings and thirtysomethings), but is written, directed, and choreographed by them as well. It is impossible to do anything but commend the entire ensemble for having both the talent and the audacity to tackle such a feat and successfully bring it from Minnesota to New York City. The cast brings genuine commitment, impressive singing voices and an often-absent fearlessness to the stage that makes the show greater than the sum of its parts.
The plot of Angst is kind of predictable. Nine students are in a creative writing class led by Mr. King (Theo Langason) who not only wears a Cosby sweater but also overdoes an actual Bill Cosby impression. He divides up the group into deliberately mismatched pairs to work on a writing assignment to find out what they have in common: the phony political activist (Jeff Rolfzen) and the "token black kid" [their words] (Nathan Barlow), the vapid sexy popular girl (Celeste Busa) and the emo gay boy (David Belt), the crazy Christian (Derek Prestly) and the teenage alcoholic (Tara Borman), and the over-achiever (Michelle Hernick) and the stoner (Ross Orenstein). In individual scenes they battle through the Degrassi High/After School Special handbook, through both song and dialogue. The audience is guided by our narrator, Tom (Eric Mayson), who is addicted to blogging on MySpace and therefore is "socially inept" and without a partner.
The most distinctive thing about Angst is the heart exhibited by the cast. It truly helps them overcome several nit-picky obstacles, such as the absurd cocaine addiction for the over-achiever and a "dear diary" approach to MySpace that seems out of place, and makes the audience root for a resolution. In particular, the entire ensemble has a great set of pipes, with especially nice individual work from Borman and Mayson. There's a lovely duet between Orenstein and Hernick that is better than many higher profile off-Broadway numbers. Mayson is also credited as the music director, and whether he is solely responsible for the arrangement or if it is a group effort, it is well done. Standout acting is also on display from the talented Mayson, Busa, Belt, and Orenstein. The direction (by Busa) and choreography (by Langason) work fairly well within the confines of the festival.
There's a humanity to the characters that can't help but be brought to light by this creative group of high school kids, because I can tell it comes from a completely honest perspective of the world. I can also tell that they have a terrific future ahead of them in musical theatre.