The Mad Ones
The "madness" in The Mad Ones comes at that brief moment in life between high school and college, when you're finally about to crash land into a glorious world all your own. The excellent Melissa Felps plays Samantha, and Grace Langford is delightful as her manic, slightly unhinged high school friend Kelly. And at the crux of their insanity is Samantha's anguish over their future together, as well as Sam's (second) upcoming driver's license test–an occasion heightened by their reading of the book "On The Road," by beat poet Jack Kerouac.
This production puts desire and suffering into a startling new focus, under the lithe direction and choreography of Kevin Corpuz. It feels like a show that's 80% singing, under the mellifluous musical direction of Joe Schoen, and features a very nice "falling in to chaos" set by Todd Schaefer. But it's mainly built on a fine story, which captures you unexpectedly after the first twelve minutes or so.
That moment of narrative entanglement comes as the familiar struggle for "order" (in the form of Sam's mom, played by the estimable Sarah Gene Dowling) seems to be heading for collision with "chaos," represented (mostly, but not entirely) by teenage friend Kelly (Ms. Langford). It's hard to describe how the show captures us so suddenly. Maybe it's the perfect equation of character development and the just-right tenor of its emotional layering.
"Do you need to go to CVS?" asks Beverly (Ms. Dowling), as she jousts with all that's coming to knock her teenage daughter off a path to Harvard University, including Sam's taco-loving boyfriend Adam (the charming Cody Cole). Here, Ms. Dowling is a much nicer version of Lady Bracknell and adds a lighter touch of comedy to the unforgiving world of car crashes and high school romance and teen pregnancy than what statistics have otherwise laid down for our guidance.
It's a personal and unexpectedly resonant story, and Ms. Felps becomes the prototype for all young women, staring down her own lonely road toward adult life. There is an occasional risk of screechiness in the duets of the two younger female characters, though this is nicely avoided for the most part.
But, back to the box office for just a moment. I was chatting with a theatre friend the other day, and he reminded me that "nobody has any money" right now in theatre, even four years after the COVID-19 pandemic. For that, and other reasons, the great Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has drastically down-sized its Christmas offering this year and sent out an emergency appeal for 2.5 million dollars in rescue funding.
But the much smaller Tesseract Theatre (which began as a launch pad for world premiere straight plays) actually seems to be doing pretty well by comparison. In fact, they are improving quality at every level, including the unexpectedly rich lighting design here by co-producer Brittanie Gunn.
More importantly, perhaps, the group recently altered its business model to focus on exciting musicals, like their recent production of Kinky Boots. It seems obvious once you say it out loud, but a co-producer (quoting director Corpuz, in fact) says these make a lot more money than unknown new titles, despite the much higher production costs. (This was said in a curtain speech for their show, Ordinary Days, a year ago.) The Tesseract Theatre's smaller, world premiere plays are now showcased in their summer season.
So, let's put on a musical! Girl power will save us all.
The Mad Ones runs through November 12, 2023, at The Tesseract Theatre Company, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and more information please visit www.tesseracttheatre.com.