By Lynn Venhaus
An 18-year-old girl in a car. Life looms large at that age, so much ahead, not much in the rear-view mirror. Is she ready to embark on her journey?
The expertly produced “The Mad Ones” from Tesseract Theatre captures those feelings –that yearning for experiences and the exhilaration of the possibilities about the road ahead, but also wanting to leave the past behind. And regrets, we’ve all had a few.
The show, first produced in 2017, formerly known as “The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown,” focuses on that moment when you prepare to leave home – off to college or work or other adventures – and the memories that flood your brain during a turning point. What does Samantha do when people around her give advice? And how can she move on when certain things hold her back?
As besties Samantha and Kelly, Melissa Felps as the smart one and Grace Langford as the wild one sing their hearts out in Kait Kerrigan and Bree Loudermilk’s off-Broadway musical theatre sensation. This contemporary drama is laced with humor and isn’t going for easy answers or tying things up neatly, but rather a process of discovery, which can feel overwrought because of the intense material.
This four-person show taps into choices, grief, and loss, and how the detours of life just force us off the road – even when we’re just getting started. Three of the four performers make their Tesseract debut, in line with the company’s mission to include fresh voices and new perspectives. (Langford was seen earlier this year in “The Last Five Years.”)
While Felps and Langford, both tremendous belters, are a dynamic duo as the oh-so-dramatic BFFs, Sarah Gene Dowling as Sam’s mom Beverly and Cody Cole as Sam’s boyfriend Adam are also noteworthy.
Dowling conveys warmth and wisdom as sometimes overbearing Beverly, strong in her touching “Miles to Go” solo, and zealous in “I Know My Girl” accompanied by the ensemble. Cole, while not on stage that much, works to make dim-bulb Adam more than the one-note character as written. His “Run Away with Me” reveals a tender side.
The characters are rather sketchily drawn, but the performers work overtime to make them relatable. The book could use some tweaking – as the non-linear story arc can be clunky in disclosure and sometimes murky.
However, the propulsive songs are exceptionally expressive, and the ensemble delivers them with a deeply felt commitment, especially “Moving On,” “Drive” and “Remember This.” They have fun introducing themselves in “We’re Just in Your Head.”
Once dialed in, the production is more than crossroads and “On the Road” references (title included). No need for spoiler alert– but expect life to happen while they’re busy making other plans.
Felps, in her best performance to date, exhibits plenty of verve, but also frets in the way that teenage girls do, with moms and boyfriends to deal with – and with a pesky live-wire best friend judging her decisions and nudging her out of her comfort zone.
Her poignant delivery of “The Girl Who Drove Away” and “There Was a Party” aptly captures her impassioned but sensible valedictorian character, while she excels in the duets, smoothly collaborating with her partners.
With Cole as the not-as-intelligent beau, the couple is playful in “Simple as That,” funny in “The Proposal,” and sweet and hopeful in “Say the Word.”
The mother-daughter relationship is humorously captured in “My Mom Is a Statistician” while she’s learning to drive, a running plot point.
But the calling card here is puckish Langford and earnest Felps’ stupendous harmony. Their heartfelt vocals are best in a song grappling with life’s blows – “Ordinary Senior Year,” and revisiting memories and dreams in “Freedom.” They really have fun with “Top Ten” – you must listen to the lyrics. (A dig about Sting’s musical?! Hilarious. More Sting jokes to come (?!)
Both high-spirited actresses have worked together before, in a regional production of “Urinetown” in summer 2022, and they have an easy chemistry that allows their characters to resonate emotionally. The two singers reach a zenith with their power in “Go Tonight” (written as a shouting match, it seems – some of the bombastic delivery could have been more nuanced to mix up the intensity).
Lyricist Kerrigan and composer Loudermilk’s musical has inspired a cult-like following, in a similar way that “Dear Evan Hansen” did in 2017. As this work has been in development for many years, several numbers went viral on YouTube. More than 15,000 pieces of digital music from the score have already been sold since 2009.
The work of high-octane director-choreographer-performer Kevin Corpuz, a big fan of Kerrigan-Loudermilk, always has an energy to it, and in his directorial debut, has maintained a noticeable momentum in The Marcelle space. The staging, to use a driving reference (that are plentiful in this show), has muscular power.
Music Director Joe Schoen’s interpretation of the score has both a fleetness and a sleekness to it, with Schoen conducting and playing keyboard, and superb sound from Adam Rugo on guitar, Chuck Evans on violin, and Zach Neumann on a second keyboard.
The creative crew has contributed to outstanding production values – Jacob Baxley on sound design, Brittanie Gunn on lighting design, and Todd Schaefer’s striking scenic design that allows a fluidity, while Stage Manager Sarah Baucom keeps the action smooth.
Gunn, co-founder and creative director, and Corpuz, also creative director, are ushering in a new era at the 12-year-old Tesseract that promises to be exciting as they reach new goals with musical productions and continue their commitment to new voices with their summer play festival.
“The Mad Ones” is a crowd-pleasing choice after positive response to “Kinky Boots,” “Ordinary Days,” and “The Last Five Years,” yet still taking risks and meeting challenges. Next up is “The Inheritance,” the 2020 Tony Award winner for Best Play, in April, New Musical Summer Fest in July, and the musical “Anastasia” in November 2024.
In the iconoclastic words of Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a saw a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Mad Ones” Nov. 3-12, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. at The Marcelle, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr, St. Louis, 63103, in Grand Center. The show is 1 hour, 40 minutes, without intermission. For more information, visit the website: www.tesseracttheatre.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.