The Mad Ones
Photo by Richard Termine
The Mad Ones, a musical by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk appearing at 59E59 Theaters, takes its title from a line from Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live…”. In fact, its central character, a young woman named Sam, carries a copy of the book around with her. She’s just graduated from high school. Her mother, Beverly, expects her to go to Harvard; her best friend, Kelly, expects her to go to a state college with her. What Sam wants to do - sort of - is to take to the road, although she only has a learner’s permit. And Kelly encourages her. Kelly “believes in listening to the road” - that is, wandering.
We meet Sam at the show’s opening trying to make the decision of what to with with her life - with her next year, actually - and her decision-making provides the substance of the play, such as it is. The script proceeds with flashbacks until the final scene. In the process we meet, in addition to Beverly and Kelly, Adam, her dimwit boyfriend who genuinely seems to want her to do whatever’s best for her.
There’s not much dramatic tension in this slim story line. What’s more, the theme, as well as the character types, has been well covered. The writers’ only point seems to be that a young woman has the same wanderlust as a young man. Young men, Beverly tells her daughter, are free to take to the road, but “You were born a woman and you’ll never be that free”. This is hardly a new thought.
There may be a bit of a spoiler to follow, but not much. We’re told early in the play that Kelly dies. She’s so associated with road trips that we wonder “Does Sam kill her while driving? Does she die from driving recklessly herself?” But no, she dies accidentally, with no relationship to character or dramatic action.
The show has some nice moments, certainly. Adam, of course, has been wanting sex, but when Sam offers herself to him he initially declines. And Kelly has some sardonic lines. But the lyrics - the play is nearly through-sung - are written without irony, and they’re undistinguished. Worse, most of the songs - they’re pop style - sound alike.
The cast of four does a good job singing this limited material. They’re fine, technically. But Jay Armstrong Johnson is given very little to do as Adam and so the play’s conceptual structure lacks balance. Krystina Alabado is competent as Sam, but she never really makes us care about her. Leah Hocking works well as Beverly, and Emma Hunting is outstanding as Kelly, giving the character more depth than the others.
Stephen Brackett directs with precision, but he works with a brutally sterile set, minimalist and unattractive, that oppresses the show. The orchestra consists of piano, guitar, harp and violin, creative but too heavy on the strings.
And so we are reminded that the musical is a form that demands a lot from its creators. The Mad Ones is not without talent, but it has little to say. The script could well be expanded and developed to create some complexity.