Downstairs inside (le) poisson rouge, an inventive, loud, and ridiculously entertaining piece of musical theatre is pounding out its angsty rebellious pop to an odd assortment of fans, friends, and (I think) some family members. You walk in to the warm up band blasting out their defiant songs at such a level that I surprised myself by graciously accepting the offer of free ear plugs as I made my way into the music venue. This isn’t a theatre by any means, but stained into the walls and floors of that rock club reminded me of the shabby and most wonderful early days of Hedwig at the decrepit Jane Street Hotel Theatre (back when it was a SRO, before it went all fancy). Pop Punk High, produced by Anderson Cook and Not the Normal Productions is an aggressive but silly high school story that we’ve all heard before, one that is about a loser geek trying to get that hot number in their school, someone clearly out of their league and already attached to an idiot, but also, in the framework of someone popular and worshipped. The plot has been used countless times before in teen movies and musical theatre, like the far better Be More Chill, Dear Evan Hansen, and Mean Girls, to name a few. The difference in Pop Punk High is location and the edgy music, reminiscent of the likes of Green Day’s American Idiot, Blink-182 and Sum 41. If that’s your speed and you like it loud and rough, this particular sound is for you, because at Pop Punk High, it is always 2003 and skateboards, eyeliner, and black combat boots are all very much current and the rage. It’s a place where Avril Lavigne is a pop punk goddess, and winning the pop punk band competition is everything to everyone, just like it is for the boys trying to men in Gettin’ The Band Back Together. Age seems irrelevant to the story line, but the feeling of being left out and on the sideline is something most can relate to, regardless of gender, age, sexuality, and popularity.
Pop Punk High is an attempt to flip the high school story from cute to raucous. With a trite but efficient book by Anderson Cook (Blatantly Blaine) and deliberately rabid and rough music & lyrics by Ben Lapidus (skate punk band: Kill Your Friends), the rebellious but traditional tale of dealing with a loser life and your perpetually straight-laced parents, played with an over-the-top cartoonish glee by the playful McLean Peterson (Atlantic’s Bible Stories) and Eric Wiegand (Project Y’s The Test) transferes well. And when adding the pop punk princess ‘genie-in-a-bottle’ scenario to try to get the girl of your dreams, played by the well-voiced Jess Kaliban (LSTFI’s Blue Window) as Amanda Bunkface, the hottest girl in PPHigh, Pop Punk High flies forward. It’s only about 90 minutes long and moves at a clear and consistent pace, although I must admit, for a loud raucous piece of musical theater, it feels longer and loose. The cast is all on point, dancing and singing with uniform glee and energy. There isn’t much of a chance for any of them to truly step out and get noticed for doing anything or sounding in any way different, but as directed by Felicia Lobo(Corkscrew Theatre Festival’s High School Coven), the story of loser desperate Derek, played with an engaging and talented presence by the very appealing Ben Lapidus, foot stomps its way through skateboard challenges, magical interventions, and friendship missteps all to a strong definitive beat and rarely altering sound.
It’s clear that this is exactly the manner this pop punk journey should take. Derek’s life sucks, and the girl of his dreams doesn’t know he’s alive, but, as with all good geek loser heroes, he doesn’t see the sweet ballads of life before him. His parents, although annoying in their innocence, are pretty understanding and are given one of the brightest moments to tap dance and shine like no one else, rising above a musical that rarely varies its sound far from grunge. Derek also has the best and most loyal friend, in the dynamo frame of Tib, played with clear but wacky intention by Amanda Centeno (TUT’s Twelfth Night). Naturally he takes her for granted and ignores her pleas and her desires becoming more and more self-absorbed and focused on his own outcome over all others. Tib can’t stop herself, though, from loving Derek’s nemesis, the boyfriend of Amanda, the protected “beautiful boy” son of Pop Punk principal, played dementedly by the astutely ridiculous Jacob Grover(the Pit’s Blatantly Blaine), and the rival for all things popular. This bully and badass, terrible boyfriend goes by the name of Skeet, and he is played with poetic goofiness by the energetic but slightly awkward Patrick Sweeney. With that battleground creation of all things cool, the by-the-books setup is complete. The lines are drawn, but now a little magic is needed to turn the tables on this traditional but raunchy place, looking for some life lessons to awaken inside Derek to what is really important to himself, his friends, and all else in the Pop Punk High universe.
Things quite obviously take a much needed turn when Derek discovers a can of Axe Body Spray and oddly enough unleashes the pop punk ghost-slash-genie of Avril Lavigne, played with a casually bored perfection by Kelly Krauter (Players Theatre’s Single Rider). Avril, clad in the traditional garb of the pop punk goddess (costumes by Olivia Hern), grants Derek three genie-like wishes that will rocket him skyward and make Amanda fall in love with him, but with one pop punk genie condition. He, with the help of valedictorian Tib, must find the person responsible for her incarceration within the Axe Body Spray bottle. Sadly, she ain’t no animated Robin Williams and he’s no Aladdin, but together, with her laconic presence, they fit the bill and the musical moves quickly forward towards the showdown this piece of garage band theater needs.
As Derek begins to select his wishes, we all sit back (or lean back – as the majority of patrons stand gathered around the thrust stage as if they are at a true punk rock concert) knowing pretty much where this is heading. Although there are a few refreshing surprises, mainly in the form of Amanda’s girl powered punk band stance, Derek soon finds out that what he thought would makes him pop punk proud, isn’t pop punk at all. His heart doesn’t grow three sizes that day (something else ridiculously and hilariously did), but his eyes and ears opens wide to all that is important in the world, or at least to the Pop Punk High universe.
Mina Walker (improvisational voice band, Subtle Pride) as the Promoter starts us off running fast and furious, leading a feisty and furious ensemble made up of the precise and rambunctious Brenna Donahue, Sarah Anne Fernandez, Zac Porter, Timiki Salinas, and Leanne Velednitsky (Assoc. Choreographer, Dance Captain). Nick Brenock is on guitar, joined by Dan Hemerlain on bass, Matthew Riordan on guitar 2, Josh Roberts on drums playing hard and strong in the background of Hannah Levesque obvious and finely functional set, with sporadic lighting by Andrew Hunt. It’s odd to note that although Centeno’s Tib powers hard throughout the show, many times she and others are left in the dark, even when the proverbial spot light should be shining hard on their emotional defiant singing. All in all, if this style of immersive pop punk rock concert makes you want to throw your arms in the air like you don’t care (and there were a few parents in the crowd who seemed especially excited – or a tad intoxicated), then by all means gather yourself together with your buddies, grab a few beers and cocktails, and bounce to the pop punk madness at (le) poisson rouge. It left me with one curious question though, floating around in my head once I removed my ear plugs. What would this show be like if the music and lyrics got a bit broader in style with a finer focus towards storytelling and character development? Especially, if the production was given a more defined and professional direction along the lines of the magnificent American Idiot that triumphed on Broadway years ago. Could Pop Punk High register and rise to an epic and more satisfying level? Or is this show doing and being exactly as it is designed and destined to be? You be the judge, but be prepared with your ear plugs regardless of what you might think.
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