Theater Review: THE BOY IN THE BATHROOM (Orange County)

by Tony Frankel on April 30, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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A SHOW IN HOT WATER

The Chance Theater is the best and most enterprising small theatre in Orange County; under the guidance of managing director Casey Long and co-founder and current artistic director Oanh Nguyen, the Chance produces new, challenging, and rarely seen works with astounding professionalism. Nguyen brings a brilliant interpretation to the shows he directs, even when the book is problematic. He injected insightful nuance and simplicity into Merrily We Roll Along, making it the best out of eight versions that I have seen; and with last year’s The Who’s Tommy, we saw the most technically triumphant production ever seen in a small house anywhere.

Unfortunately, director Nguyen was trapped by the structure and music of The Boy in the Bathroom, a modern musical now receiving its World Premiere. In 2007, The Boy in the Bathroom received 4 awards at The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), including Most Promising New Musical and Excellence in Book Writing. Yes, the book and story show promise, but the music is positively perplexing. Potential may be exciting at a festival, but fully staged productions must be held to a higher standard. The show isn’t necessarily unappealing, but the more I think about it, the more upset I am at the multitude of missed opportunities as this musical went from workshop to production. It is because of this potential that I feel the need to be harsh.

The Boy in the Bathroom – musical - Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills in Orange County Most astounding are the heaps of praise that the creators have received at festivals and workshops. For this production, one rave review called the music “generally unimpressive;” another gave the show a Critic’s Choice, but called the music “so-so.” So-so?! It’s a musical, for crying out loud. Hyping the concept while ignoring the show’s deep-rooted problems is a disservice to both the creators and the theatre community.

It is the story of David (Chris Klopatek), a 25 year-old obsessive/compulsive who has locked himself in the bathroom of his mother’s home in Michigan. At the time he locked himself in, David was seeking a Masters Degree in Philosophy. So, with no computer, he scribbles his thesis on toilet paper. When David’s co-dependent mother Pam (Marina Coffee) is injured in a fall, neighbor Julie (Liz Holt) takes a job helping around the house so she can buy a car and get out of Michigan. Not surprisingly, Julie develops feelings for David – in declaring her need to move on in life, she entices him to re-think his self-imposed internment, which is already going on one year.

The Boy in the Bathroom – musical - Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills in Orange CountyIn this first full-staged production, Bathroom still shows promise in Michael Lluberes’ book. First of all, we have Pam, the overweight mom who must deal with her own obsessive/compulsive behavior (apparently, it’s in the genes). Her unwillingness to take drastic action with her son is a wonderful character study. She accommodates him by sliding food – which has been squashed down to ½ an inch – under the door. Pam also manipulates Julie to leave just as it becomes apparent that David may finally emerge from the bathroom. Even as she reminds us of a kinder Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery, we sympathize with Pam as she sings of her inability to control her world. Her husband walked out on her years ago, and in “Full” – the only great number in the show – she bemoans that the people she loves keep walking out on her life. Ms. Coffee fits the character perfectly, but, sadly, does not have the singing chops for the material.

The other promising feature is the idea itself. But Lluberes’s book needs to go into more depth with his characters, especially Julie, who needs fleshing-out. She is so clear as to what she wants that there is nothing for her to discover. She may interest David in the outside world, but wouldn’t it have been fascinating if Julie could see the benefits of living a sheltered life? Sort of in the “no expectations, no disappointments” vein. Also, while the piece is amiable enough, it lacks excitement because the characters are much too self-aware. Both Mr. Klopatek and Ms. Holt have some lovely moments and a naturalistic acting style, but Ms. Holt – with her folk-rock vibrato – is the only truly strong singer in the show.

The Boy in the Bathroom – musical - Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills in Orange County Some of the dialogue frustrates as well: without going into detail, there is a series of “Knock-Knock” jokes that wear out their welcome almost immediately. Could the author please come up with alternative ways for Julie to approach that bathroom door?

Lluberes’ lyrics can be clever and sometimes serve to define character, but they don’t yet warrant the musicalization of what at first was his original play. Sometimes, too, the lyrics feel cheap: when Pam shoves food under the door, she sings the Brand Name of products, which immediately dates the show. The recognizability factor may bring a chuckle to the audience, but it’s an unsophisticated way to get us to identify with the characters. As such, the songs only serve to drag out the musical, because they do not heighten the psychology or the emotion of the piece; instead, they muddle the fascinating story.

The biggest frustration is Joe Maloney’s music, which is hugely inaccessible. I can’t define the music: at times, it may be described as atonal, or that which deviates from traditional chord progression. Other times, it sounds improvisational. The rhythms and meter are repetitive, and the melodies are difficult to make out, so often are they drowned out by the proliferation of 16th notes in the score (a masterful Mike Wilkins accompanies on piano). It’s almost impossible to tell if Maloney is following old formulas or trying to create a new one. Either way, his music is simply head-scratching and dull.

The Boy in the Bathroom – musical - Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills in Orange County When a hook of a melody does appear, as in David’s ballad “Walking on the Moon,” said hook soon becomes boring. In the search for a new way to express themselves, it seems that modern composers have all but abandoned theme and variation. One wonders if Maloney intended to have us feel what it is like inside the head of an obsessive/compulsive personality. That would be an interesting idea if the songs belonging ONLY only to David were composed that way, but the entire score sounds derivative of the modern recitative made popular by Jonathon Larson in Rent.

Because the action takes place in and just outside of the bathroom, the show structurally limits its own potential from the start. As it stands, we have a static chamber musical that screams to get the hell out of that bathroom – both physically and musically. If the show is to see a successful future, the creators need to step outside the door of their own self-enclosed bathroom by plumbing the depths of their character’s souls and expanding the back story of both Julie and David (especially his relationship with his runaway dad).

When David explores what it might feel like to break away from the bathroom in “Walking on the Moon,” the bathroom itself should fragment and break away, leaving David floating in a frightening, exciting, free-floating world of infinite possibilities. We know that David’s locked in the bathroom, but in set designer Bradley Kaye’s perfectly realized but immovable bathroom, neither we nor the characters have anywhere to go.

The Boy in the Bathroom – musical - Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills in Orange County We all have walls up in our lives, so the audience needs to know what David would do with his life – what would he BE like – if those barriers ever came down. An auteur needs to climb into the bathtub with the creators and push them out of their own restrictive premise. For all of its promise, The Boy in the Bathroom is as stagnant as the water which sits on a hair-clog in a drain. It needs to shit or get off the pot.

P.S. Of the more than 270 new musicals presented since NYMF’s inception in 2004, more than 70 have gone on to successful productions, including Altar Boyz and [title of show]. Bathroom may yet one day be fully-realized, but the subject matter and treatment will no doubt be compared to NYMF winner Next to Normal (originally titled Feeling Electric during its 2005 NYMF run).

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

The Boy in the Bathroom
scheduled to close May 22 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.chancetheater.com or call 714.777.3033

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