Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Poignant ‘Glory Days’ at Signature

This past Sunday night I saw a new musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Glory Days, with book by James Gardiner and music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire. Here is my review for The Metro Herald:

A Poignant ‘Glory Days’ at Signature
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Do not be misled by Glory Days, the title of a new musical now having its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, with its allusion to a hit song by Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen’s first verse tells of a middle-aged man, drinking in a bar, reminiscing ruefully of his time as a high school sports star. The four characters in Glory Days (the musical) are brought together through quite the opposite experience: failing to make the school’s football team their freshman year.

What Glory Days (the musical) and “Glory Days” (the rock song) have in common is a theme of nostalgia for an earlier time. The contrast cannot be clearer, however, because the characters in Springsteen’s song are all well-past high school and the characters in the new musical by Nick Blaemire (music and lyrics) and James Gardiner (book) are only a year past graduation. One wonders, superficially, what these young pups have to be nostalgic about. On deeper reflection, however, one finds a painfully accurate portrayal of what the interior life of a teenager is like, and how much that interior life is influenced by relationships with his peers.

Glory Days also has a thematic connection to Merrily We Roll Along, the venerable (if flawed) Stephen Sondheim musical that opened Signature’s current season. Both plays are meditations on friendship and its meaning. Both plays portray the fault lines that can develop between (and among) friends. Both plays express a yearning for having a life “like it was” (in Sondheim’s phrase) and a regret that “things are different” (in Blaemire and Gardiner’s version). As an exploration of friendship, however, Glory Days succeeds in ways that Merrily We Roll Along fails.

Musically, the two shows could not be more different, and though it would be cruel to contrast the efforts of neophyte songwriter Blaemire with those of the mature Sondheim, it would be also be fair to note that the music in Glory Days is rather homogenized, with any one song indistinct from the others. The sameness may benefit the young cast, however, because while the music is not very challenging to a singer, the clever and sometimes rapid lyrics can be. Blaemire’s score is a bland mix of pop, folk-pop, and commercial jingles without any stand-out selections. This is not to say the score is bad. It is, in fact, pleasant and does the job it is intended to do.

That job is to provide an opportunity for each of the four boys (some more than others) to express their interior monologues in a theatrically acceptable way. The choice to musicalize these texts is one that makes much more sense, dramatically, than to take the route that few playwrights other than Eugene O’Neill can do without seeming stilted and unconvincing. (And even O’Neill faltered more than once.)

Glory Days takes place in real time: Four high school friends, now 19 years old, meet on the bleachers of the football field after a year away at college and on the night before a big alumni football match. One of the boys suggests a prank to play, to get back at the jocks and preps who made such fun of them during their school days. This is the closest that Glory Days gets to a traditional plot, for the play is not so much about what happens exteriorly as what is happening to each of the boys interiorly.

What Blaemire and Gardiner get, just-so, is the sense of nearly every adolescent that, even if he is as normal as one can be, he is either abnormal or extraordinary. (Bob Fosse dealt with the same set of issues in Pippin more than 35 years ago, in a far different manner and with a much more memorable score by Stephen Schwartz that included the songs “Corner of the Sky” and “Extraordinary,” expressing that adolescent angst precisely and humorously.) The four boys of Glory Days believe they were misfits without knowing that virtually all their classmates and teammates believed the same thing about themselves.

While Glory Days is an ensemble piece, the story (such as it is) really centers on Will (Stephen Booth), who is alone on stage when the play begins and again when the play ends. Will is a diarist who writes about his pals and his relationship/s with them – he has secretly been keeping a journal about them since they met, expressed in song in “My Three Best Friends.” Will is also the instigator of the plot – he has invited his friends to join him on the football field at midnight so that they can relive their high-school friendship after a year of being apart.

It is here that the story strains credulity, simply because Glory Days is set in the present. How is it possible that four friends in the era of email, Facebook, and txt msgs could have been incommunicado with each other for a year? In 2008, teenage friends are in constant communication with each other, regardless of where they might have traveled to college.

Had Blaemire and Gardiner chosen to set this play in the not-so-distant past – even as recently as the early 1990s, but perhaps more believably in 1978 rather than 2008 – this problem would not arise. With a few minor adjustments, directors of future productions of Glory Days should endeavor to fix this.

Moving past that minor glitch, the “three best friends” arrive, and each of them is a distinct personality with an individual story to tell. Will and Andy (Andrew C. Call) have been college roommates, but know each other none the better for that fact – revealed in the song “We’ve Got Girls,” in which they dispute each other’s successes and failures on the playing field of love and lust.

In “Open Road,” Jack (Jesse JP Johnson) brings tension to the quartet when he reveals, subtly yet decisively that, after dropping out of college and taking a month-long road trip, he has discovered he is gay. Learning this, Andy feels lied-to and betrayed, but tries to keep his anger under wraps for as long as he can.

The most “adult” of the four is Skip (Adam Halpin) who, in college, has abandoned his straight-edge previous self (his father a military officer, Skip was in Junior ROTC for four years) for what the other boys call a “hippie” look. To us, Skip appears quite clean-cut but the reaction of his friends tells us that his moderately long hair seems to be in a different universe than that of his crewcutted, high-school self.

The four actors playing these roles are perfectly suited to their characters. No doubt director Eric Schaeffer worked with them long hours to help them create back stories for each boy. (These back stories are intimated in a two-page spread in the play’s printed program, meant to suggest a high-school yearbook, with autographs and listings of activities, favorite songs, and quotations.) All four deserve commendation, but Booth’s Will gives the play its heart.

Will fears growing up. Although he is just 12 months past graduation, he has idealized high school as a carefree time even as he remembers himself (and his three best friends) as misfits, alienated from the rest of their classmates. Neither recollection is entirely accurate, of course, and the conflict between these two visions is what animates the discord among the four friends. It is within this dichotomy that Blaemire and Gardiner have captured so perfectly the anxious yet hopeful psychology of the late teenager. (That this inner conflict applies so particularly to smart, creative types may be why it took a team of 23-year-olds to write and compose this show.)

When it comes right down to it, Glory Days is a likeable show. I liked it. Despite its imperfections, I can foresee Glory Days having a successful future in the repertoire of college and community theatres. With its four-person cast, its small instrumental ensemble (keyboard, guitar, drums, and bass, here under the direction of Derek Bowley), its single set, and a running time of under 90 minutes, it is ready-made for theatrical companies on a tight budget that want to showcase their young (and male) talent.

Not every small company will be able to replicate the amazingly simple yet evocative set by James Kronzer and terrifically effective lighting design by Mark Lanks, but most should be able to approximate the contemporary, generic-yet-individual costumes designed by Sasha Ludwig-Seigel. Signature’s design team has set the bar high for future productions.

On their first outing, the team of Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner may not see themselves immediately proclaimed the next Kander & Ebb, but they prove that they are competent and talented enough to produce more, and more complex, works in the years to come. (They have also written a second musical, called Millennials, not yet produced.) To paraphrase the master, “Here’s to them! Who’s like them? Damn few.”

Glory Days runs through February 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia. For more information, visit Single tickets for the world premiere of Glory Days are on sale through Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 and through

Addendum: Peter Marks reviews Glory Days in Friday's Washington Post; that newspaper earlier ran a small feature on the show's costume design choices. Jayne Blanchard gives her take on the show in Friday's Washington Times, while Metro Weekly's Tom Avila posted his review on Thursday.

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