Fueled by great voices, terrific performances and the most sophisticated display of stage technology ever seen in Spencer Theatre, the new musical “Between the Lines” has all the makings of a major crowd pleaser.
Based on the best-selling novels by Jodi Picoult and her then-teenage daughter, Samantha van Leer, this show — it opens Kansas City Rep’s 53rd season — unfolds in two realities.
The first is your everyday high school where our heroine, Delilah (Arielle Jacobs), copes with bullies and mean girls. But at least at school Delilah doesn’t have to deal with her newly divorced, overworked and stressed-out mom, Grace (Shanna Jones).
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Small wonder Delilah takes refuge in a book, a fairy tale about a faraway kingdom, a handsome prince, a dragon, and a man-dog. Problem is, the yarn’s hunky/charming Prince Oliver (Curt Hansen) starts stepping off the page and into Delilah’s reality.
With direction by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, book by Timothy Allen McDonald and songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, “Between the Lines” blends reality and fantasy through the escapist lens of literature (think “Neverending Story” or “The Princess Bride”).
This allows the show to delve into serious real-life issues (especially parent/child antagonisms), balancing them against the comic cleverness of the fairy tale world.
In that world the characters are pretty much like actors. Whenever someone opens the book to read they immediately slip into character and begin performing their written roles. But when the book is closed they’re like co-workers at a never-ending office party marked by romances, feuds and an always-open bar.
At the end of Act I our heroine finds herself transported to the pages of the book where her presence upsets the delicate balance of the fairy tale she so adores.
All this begs the question: Is “Between the Lines” Broadway ready?
Not quite. The show has some structural problems, including a first act that spins its wheels by repeating the same handful of ideas and scenes instead of advancing the story.
The character of Delilah struck this reviewer as a bit bland; her personality could use a few more distinctive edges (though one cannot argue with Jacobs’ singing voice, which is spectacular).
And too many of Samsel and Anderson’s songs sound alike. The show needs at least one melodic monster that audiences can hum on their way out the doors.
Standout performances include Hansen’s Prince Oliver, a delicious parody of kid-lit heroism with an endless supply of fetching poses (and a voice that glides effortlessly from romantic tenor to an ear-tickling falsetto), and Danny Gardner as the man/dog Frump, who steals a big chunk of Act II with a tap dance seduction of a princess in the number “Out of Character.”
And the high school’s aged librarian, Judy Simmons, brings down the house with “Mr. Darcy and Me,” a funny/touching song about the enduring romantic pull of “Pride and Prejudice.”
One of the cleverest things about the show is the creative double casting. Thus Tim Scott plays both Rapskullio, the fairy tale villain (though in his off-hours he’s actually a butterfly-loving softy who regrets his nasty side) and a nice-guy school psychologist.
Emily Shackelford plays both Allie McAndrews, the high school’s sadistic queen bee, and Seraphina, the dumb-as-nails princess who assumes she’ll have Oliver all to herself.
Morgan Siobhan Green appears as both Delilah’s take-no-BS best bud, and as a fairy tale mermaid who, in the knockout number “Do It for You,” joins with two other sea sirens (Colleen Grate, Lexi Brie) to deliver a Motown girl group lesson on female empowerment.
And it’s a treat to see Jones, quite the sad sack as the miserable Grace, put on a medieval gown and throw her weight around as the fairy tale’s Queen Maureen.
As good as any of these elements is the jaw-dropping physical production. Tobin Ost’s scenic design centers on a series of platforms rising to the rear of the stage and flanked by walls made of gigantic books. Various set units (a kitchen, a high school science lab) slide effortlessly on and off the stage. Animated projections play on the rear wall, which frequently turns transparent to reveal the fairy tale characters caught in living tableaus based on the book’s illustrations.
Seriously, you could go see “Between the Lines” just for the visuals and you’d get your money’s worth.
No doubt the show will undergo revisions as it works its way to a New York run. But even at this early stage it’s already an often- breathtaking night of theater.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “Between the Lines” continues through Oct. 1 at Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.