According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In the Schoolyard

Backward-Looking Middle-Aged Men and the Dreams They’ve Left Behind: The Musical!

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

When I think of basketball, I think of the Lakers, Dennis Rodman, my dad randomly shouting at the TV set in our living room on a Sunday, a couple college buddies meeting up after classes to dominate each other on the courts. What I do not think of is musical extravaganza.

In the Schoolyard, a new musical just completing its run at the award-winning Theater for the New City, does not agree. The two-hour show traces five middle-aged friends as they meet up for a high-school reunion in, well, the schoolyard. The show hinges on a sort of sad, sweet paradox – the only thing these men really look forward to is looking back. Bring on the jazz hands!

Sure, West Side Story gave gangs rhythm and fan kicks, but at lease the show dealt with young, physically fit men. In In the Schoolyard, choreographer James Martinelli has no limber street fighters to teach truculent tondus to, but (by the show’s necessity) is instead presented with a pack of out of shape has-beens, thickened by nostalgia and a fifty-hour workweek. And you thought Billy Elliot had it hard.

With its book and lyrics by director Paulanne Simmons and the score by musical director Margaret Hetherman, In the Schoolyard does a commendable job finding the razzle dazzle in an arguably depressing situation. The show, like these past-obsessed men, succeeds the most when it surrenders itself to fantasy. Jerry’s show-stopping number “Small-Town Attorney” is hilarious (it doesn’t hurt that the man playing Jerry, James Martinelli, happens to also be the show’s choreographer and a very likeable presence on stage). Martinelli’s Jerry, stocky and soft, breaks into improbable tap number in the middle of an airport bar, and Simmons gives him wonderfully self-conscious, smart lyrics to break up the time steps and let the audience in on the joke.

The next time we see the ridiculous trump reality is Manny’s Don Juan-esque tribute to his sexy Spanish heritage in “Best Latin Lover, Dartmouth ’71.” The song is pretty silly – Manny jumps out of his car for the serenade, breaking into some kind of flamenco to reassert his golden days of yore. Manny, played by Richard Bryson, looks a bit like Jerry – both men have compressed, sturdy builds foreign to the world of musical theater.

Oddly enough, though, it's the cast's clumsiness and, in the most enjoyable and least realistic of musical numbers, the cast's total embracement of this clumsiness that makes In the Schoolyard's outlandish moments both believable and affecting. Despite all their ineffectual wistfulness, these middle-aged men prove that a little time, a little distance, and a little reflection can be a very good thing. Youth may be wasted on the young, but there’s a sense of comfortableness, of self-acceptance and humor that only comes with a potbelly and a tuft of grey. Sure, nostalgia is great. But sometimes, with the right dance moves, the here and now is even better.

After all, why get sidelined for travelling when you can get an assist, bank a jump shot and move on?

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Theater for the New City (155 1st Ave. b/t 10th St. and 11th St.)
Performances: May 4th through May 20th

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