The Yellow Wood
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
September 22, 2007
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This is from one of the most memorized and recited poems in the English language, and to be able to memorize and recite it by the seventh period on this day is a task of nearly life-turning proportions for 17-year-old Adam. He doesn't understand why this "stupid dude," Robert Frost, agonized over the arbitrary choices of unknown paths and not "just take one!" Adam is into skateboarding, not poetry that is "useful in life like a hole in the head."
This is a simple starting point for a layered, multi-threaded, and very exciting musical The Yellow Wood. With book by Michelle Elliott, lyrics by Elliott and Danny Larsen, and music by Larsen, it is about boy turning into man, pieces turning into whole, and indeed, a soul turning into a poet.
High school is, typically, hell. But however reluctant and thoroughly bored Adam is, Mrs. Mackleby has warned him of the "inevitability of English" and threatened to flunk him if he doesn't deliver "The Road Not Taken." Perhaps precisely because it is a big day, he has a fight with his family at breakfast and announces that he will stop taking the daily Ritalin for his ADD. His parents and younger sister Gwen, who is a gifted student but just got transferred to his school, are horrified. Even Adam himself quickly starts to doubt and panic as the day unfolds.
We learn soon about Adam's particular—and peculiar for everyone around him—penchant for going off in his mind into fantasy and reverie. He can't seem to help it, and he is afraid of his own "rotten mind": "I just wanna be normal...Normal means I won't go wrong; Normal means I belong."
Yet ADD is not the only thing that Adam struggles with. There are many other aspects of Adam's life that rear a sense of disconnect—his Korean heritage from his mother, his poor relationship with his much more brilliant and Korean-looking sister, and his weirdo and loser status in school. And then there is this "yellow scooter girl," Adam's sometime imaginary love interest, thrown into the mix. Over and over he slips into his own world, now inspired—and at times haunted—by this all-important and insistently perplexing poem. With determination, loving family, friends—the most notable one being his best friend, Casserole—and a little help from Frost, Adam does find his way, and it makes all the difference in the world.
A musical is a perfect medium for this exploration into the imaginary terrain of the teenage mind. Although certain parts are rendered somewhat fragmented, one can perhaps argue that the youthful brain is very much a jigsaw puzzle that misses still a few pieces. If not all the dots get perfectly connected, the picture is nevertheless eye-catching and even wondrous. The show's exuberant youthful energy is complemented by a thoughtful look into a boy-man's journey in acquiring self-confidence to control his own destiny.
The songs, especially the quieter ones, are affectionately beautiful. The Korean portion of the music is the highlight of the show. Jason Tam as Adam projects a truthful, earnest sympathy. Yuka Takara as Gwen and Caissie Levy as the yellow scooter girl are both fantastic. MaryAnn Hu's Korean mother gives the show a distinct flavor. But it is Randy Blair as Casserole who steals the show with uncanny comic skill and booming personality.
Under the joyful and skillful direction of B.D. Wong, the flow is just about perfect and the staging innovative. The same props are wielded in varied ways to great effect. The color yellow has never looked this good on stage. If I have to quibble with the show, I wish the rather thin love story would get another look by the creators, and certain lyrics would delve deeper and with more subtlety. But this just might be another young rock musical to capture a lot of hearts. For me it has certainly been a rocking, poetic, and zany ride.