This spring, the Berkeley High School theater department is putting on an impressive world-premiere musical, called Man In The Musical. The ambitious and well-done show was written by Bay Area natives Phil Gorman and Lila Tschappat.
The musical is about Cornelius Love (BHS Junior Simon Trumble), a struggling, unhappy New York actor cast as the lead in an off-Broadway musical. Unfortunately, Love is vehemently anti-musical, and must struggle with that and his growing feelings for his co-star, Mina (Sonja Dale) as well as what the program calls “his own limitations and the inability to make life what he thinks it should be,” as the world around him soon becomes a musical itself. Love is serenaded by homeless people on the street asking for spare change, and he is trailed by three doo-wop-style backup singers who seem to pop up wherever he goes. All of this action is punctuated and complemented by the witty and interesting sub-plots, such as Love and his roommate Ned’s (Perry Young) search for a third roommate, which yields applicants like Bitsy, a nasal, designer-clad uptown Daddy’s girl, and Edward, a rapper hailing from Iowa with dreams of being a big-city pimp.
The witty script captures these characters honestly and intelligently, winning real laughs from the audience. The musical-within-a-musical, entitled Boris’ Borscht Kitchen, is an absurdly funny Russian-Jewish mob drama set in prohibition-era Chicago, where a mafia family sets up shop trafficking illegal wine. We see scenes from this play, as well as snapshots of Mina’s crumbling engagement to her insensitive, workaholic fiancée (Dav Wright) and Ned’s burgeoning romance with Paige—Mina’s uptight best friend—who moves in with Ned and Cornelius. This is precisely where less talented writers could go wrong, abandoning plots or allowing them to slide into unbelievable absurdity. However, Tschappat and Gorman juggle all the plots with grace, resulting in a compelling, sometimes heartbreaking New York story.
Tschappat and Gorman both attended Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco and graduated from Yale. They both now live in the Bay Area, where Gorman serves as the administrator of Camp Kee Tov, a summer day camp affiliated with the local Jewish Temple Beth El, and Tschappat works as a counselor at a teen drug rehab facility called Thunder Road. This is their first original musical, though they have also collaborated on an adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book James and the Giant Peach. This is also the first time the BHS drama department has put on a premiere showing of a serious musical.
Though Man In The Musical is a first in many ways, it does not appear on the stage as such. The young actors take on their roles with a professionalism that is surprising for high school students. According to Tschappat and Gorman, “these kids are as good and in some cases better than the adults we usually work with.” Trumble and Dale, in their leading roles, give nuanced performances, though there is a noticeable lack of onstage chemistry between the two. However, the true stars of the play are the minor characters, especially Sean Barry and Dav Wright in several small roles each. Perry Young, as Ned, shows amazing comic timing and stage presence, and Martina Miles, as Kenner Stross, Boris’ Borscht Kitchen’s metaphor-spouting, pretentious director, delivers a performance that is colorful but not too over-the-top.
All of the actors also show impressive dancing and singing abilities. The high-energy dance numbers, credited in the play’s program to “Simon Trumble and cast,” are the highlight of the show. The songs are backed by an eight-piece band of Berkeley High students led by Gorman himself, and feature smart and creative lyrics. Gorman also oversaw musical training during rehearsals, and it shows through the actors’ singing. Especially amazing are Chandra Krinsky, Young, and Emily Stein.
The show is staged in Berkeley High School’s intimate Florence Schwimley Little Theater, and the sets and costuming are unobtrusive but complementary to the show in its entirety.
In nearly every way, Man in the Musical is a first rate musical, complete with a funny script, talented performances, and creative dancing. This performance is definitely worth seeing.
Ellen Cushing is a sophomore at Berkeley High School. o