Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Now in its world premiere production at Park Square Theatre, Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant is an original musical about 30-year-old Frannie's return to her hometown after failing at success in the big city. Chagrined and carrying a notable chip on her shoulder, she moves back into her childhood bedroom and takes a job at the IGA grocery store. The guy training her to stock shelves turns out to be a Liam, a former classmate who is now a 30-year-old stoner and, more importantly, her former rival for the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant crown. Liam's best friend Travis stops by and rekindles desire within Frannie, who had a major crush on Travis when he was a high school football hero. In a dizzy combination of the "hey, kids, lets put on a show" motif and Frannie's incipient need to settle old scores, the trio decides to revive the pageant. Frannie and Liam will perform their old routines (Liam even still his now obscenely tight-fitting sailor costume) and Travis will organize the big event.
This may not be the most logical strategy for Frannie to get back on her feet, but she dives into it, both to find out if she still has a shot at being appreciated by the town she had snubbed and to find out if she still has a chance Travis, whose body has morphed from a quarterback's firm physique into a "dad bod in the best possible way." Then Travis visits Val, who won win the pageant twenty-one years ago and has built a life around public appearances and commercial endorsements as the "reigning Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant." Travis thinks it would be classy to have Val crown the next, albeit much delayed, winner. Val, however, has no intention of letting go of her title, which is pretty much all she has going for her in Jefferson Township, especially since her latest girlfriend left her. To add to the tension, Frannie and Val had been best friends in high school, but over the years a schismfor which each blames the otherhas come between them. All gloves are off as Val, Frannie and Liam connive to win the pageant, with affable Travis trying his best to referee their plotting.
Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant first came to life at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Park Square associate producer Laura Leffler caught one of those performances and recruited writer-composer-lyricist Keith Hovis to pump the show up from the 55-minute limit placed on Fringe shows into a full-length two-act musical. The show was given a berth as the last production of the 2018-2019 season on Park Square's Boss Thrust Stage, with the same four game and highly talented actors repeating their fringe roles as Frannie, Liam, Travis and Val. Leffler herself took the helm as director.
Hovis has stated that he drew on his own childhood in a small Minnesota town to create Jefferson Township. He twists together an affectionate dig at small town living; people taking stock of themselves at certain benchmarks in life; melding one's past, present and future into something whole; and the search for a saving grace in a life that has run aground. All of it is cast in a cloud of silliness that never takes itself too seriously, even when on occasion it touches an emotional nerve. Act one sets out the lay of the land for the four characters and the increasingly nasty competition. Act two presents the pageant itself, both the on-stage performances and the mayhem backstage. Hovis' dialog is packed with jokes, both one-line zingers and character-driven humorabout half of which landalong with numerous sight gags and abundant physical humor.
Hovis's score is of the "easy listening rock" genre common to musicals set in the present day, tuneful though not memorable songs that alternate between comic turns and expressions of longing, regret or hope, with the first act closer, "After Today," serving as an anthem that is both sweet and cynical. "Drive-by Town" provides a good sense of people who decry the lack of excitement in their sleepy burg, yet still find comfort in calling it their home, and back-to-back numbers "Frannie's Lament" and "Last Place Frannie" go a long way toward fleshing out her character's emotions. Hovis gives Val a terrific, self-aggrandizing number to perform in the pageant, the unlikely named "Dear, Dead Grandma," and a spectacular piece for Liam's showcase, "Liam's One Man Musical," which is both irreverent and inspiring. Frannie and Travis have a moment of sweetness in "Beautiful" that is genuinely moving.
What misses? Frannie is too smart to believe that her future happiness depends on resurrecting and winning this silly talent show. It starts as a lark, which seems plausible, but as the stakes get higher the whole enterprise becomes hard to buy into, so the emotional investment peters out. Also, adding an ensemble to flesh out some scenes might have helped to create a sense of Jefferson Township as an actual community, rather than four millennials each lost at sea in their own way.
The quartet of actors give their all to the proceedings. Kelly Houlehan conveys Frannie's frustration and humiliation in returning home, and then gradually rebuilds connections to her former life. Houlehan has more songs than any of her castmates and delivers them with a smooth voice that conveys her feelings. Ryan London Levin is hilarious as Liam, a stoner whose anti-establishment stance on life is starting to wear thin. Levin, who has more typically been cast in roles calling for dignity, here has a chance to be a clown, and he handles it with panache. Zach Garcia radiates sincerity as Travis, the football hero whose star has fallen and is now trying to make a decent life for himself with the resources at hand. Leslie Vincent captures Val's vanity and self-absorption, and excels at using her physicality to amp up the humor. The four play off one another well, making it believable that they have a history with each other that is pushing itself back into their lives.
Director Leffler moves them smoothly from scene to scene, making quick jumps from setting to setting and character to character, flow easily, and maintains a spirit of good fun, with a hidden prize of human connections and growth tossed in the mix. The stage is cleverly designed by Ursula K. Bowden with a dated-looking IGA store in one corner, and Frannie's old bedroom that is still decorated as if to lodge a tween girl in another, and another space a lair for wannabe cool dudes. The rest of the creative team has done quality work, with blood effect designers Tyler Olsen-Highness and Craig Kossen earning their place in the creditsbe forewarned.
There is a viable premise here: the return of a prodigal daughter to her humble origins, rebuilding a life with people and traditions she had scornfully left behind. As written, Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant wants to be both snarky and heartfelt. It sometimes succeeds, but the snark factor dominates. A tacked on "one year later" closing seems intended to soften the hard edges before the audience exits.
If one can believe that the pageant once made Jefferson Township stand out as more than a run of the mill small town, one can believe that by fleshing out the community that surrounds the four principal characters to ground the story in a real context, Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant might, like the pageant, shine as more than a run of the mill show.
Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, through July 28, 2019, at Park Square Theatre, Boss Thrust Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; students (18 or younger and college students with ID), $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Keith Hovis; Director: Laura Leffler; Music Director: Brian Pekol; Choreographer: Antonia Perez; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe ; Blood Effects Design: Tyler Olsen-Highness and Craig Kossen; Dramaturg: Hannah K. Holman; Vocal Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler.
Cast: Zach Garcia (Travis Hernandez), Kelly Houlehan (Frannie Foster Wallace), Ryan London Levin (Liam Ackermann), Leslie Vincent (Val Hutchinson).