Joe Iconis, best known as the composer and lyricist for the futuristic “Be More Chill,” goes retro in his new musical “Love in Hate Nation,” which is currently playing at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. That’s the same venue where “Be More Chill” got its start, in 2015, before becoming an off-Broadway sensation and then moving, earlier this year, to Broadway.
Will lightning strike twice? I don’t think so. The songs seem less quirky and original, the characters are less interesting, and the story is less compelling
“Love in Hate Nation” has plenty of energy, and a rebellious message that should appeal to the young audiences it is clearly targeted to (as was “Be More Chill”). It underscores its revolutionary rhetoric with musical references to electrifying girl-group classics (in a manner similar to “Hairspray”) and mentions of counterculture heroes such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But I see it as a step backward for the undeniably talented Iconis.
Iconis wrote the music and lyrics for “Be More Chill,” but the book was by Joe Tracz, adapting it from the novel by Ned Vizzini. Here he writes the book, too, and that’s where the musical’s main problems are, I believe.
He’s got a good central idea, adding a new dimension (an interracial, lesbian love story) to a cliched setting (an early ’60s juvenile reformatory that houses an assortment of tough girls and misfits). “The world isn’t ready/For two girls going steady,” the hesitant lovers sing to each other. And there’s a clever surprise twist (which I won’t reveal here) in the epilogue.
But the attraction between the two different-as-can-be lead characters — sweet, tame, ukulele-playing Susannah (Amina Faye) and angry, hardened, leather jacket-wearing Sheila (Kelly McIntyre) — felt contrived, not real. And some of the writing was downright clumsy.
There is a scene toward the end of the first act, for instance, in which Susannah betrays Sheila. Susannah should be devastated, and racked with guilt: She hasn’t just turned her back on Sheila, but has put her in harm’s way. Miss Asp (“Be More Chill” veteran Lauren Marcus), the horrifically evil woman who runs the center, believes in electroconvulsive therapy, and may be subjecting Sheila to it (which could have severely dire consequences).
Iconis chooses this moment to have Susannah sing her inspirational, soaring, self-actualization anthem, “I Hope.”
This just doesn’t work. I understand why Iconis wanted to give his character a big dramatic moment like this, to end the first act. But Susannah has just done something horrible. She’s got to wallow in it a bit. She can’t just forget about it, right away, and sing a rousing song about her own hopes and dreams (with Sheila all but forgotten).
Iconis is frequently a clever lyricist. But he gets corny, here, in a way he never did in “Be More Chill.” “When she’s around it feels like sha-la-la/My brain says nah-nah-nah/But my heart says rah-rah-rah,” he has Susannah and Sheila sing about each other, repeatedly, in the song “Oh Well.”
There are moments of campy fun when the reformatory girls are singing and dancing together, and Iconis makes most of them more than one-dimensional. The geeky Ya-Ya (Sydney Farley), for instance, is revealed to have a seductive side; Dorothy (Lena Skeele) presents herself as a Southern belle but is really, it turns out, from New Jersey. And Iconis doubles down on the play’s LGBTQ content by having another character, Kitty (Emerson Mae Smith), be transgender, and proud of it.
Ryan Vona plays all of the musical’s male characters — a bunch of jerks that includes Susannah’s rich, shallow boyfriend, Francis, who’s only interested in her as a way to enhance his status in the activist community. (Since he’s white and she’s African-American, it would be seen as a bold statement if he were to marry her).
By the standards of “Love in Hate Nation,” that qualifies as sly, understated satire. Elsewhere, it delivers its well-intentioned messages with a subtlety of a flying mallet.
“Love in Hate Nation” will be at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Dec. 1. Visit tworivertheater.org.
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