By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
How’s this for a dramatic premise? A depressed, retiring young woman falls in love with a dashing, fictional character who reciprocates by stepping out of his story to continue the affair in real life. That happens not only to be the heart of the intermittently adorable new musical, Between the Lines, but, as my plus-one reminded me, also of Woody Allen’s classic 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo. In the movie, you may recall, the handsome hero steps out of his movie to fulfill the dreams of a recently divorced woman, while in Between the Lines he steps out of a fairy tale book to engage with a high school junior whose recently divorced mother is forced to earn a living by cleaning the houses of her daughter’s classmates.
The sources of this romantic fantasy—now, after a Covid delay, at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater following its 2017 world premiere at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre—are the eponymous young adult novel (2012) and its 2015 sequel, Off the Page, by the prolific, enormously popular Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha van Leer. This is a show that will likely appeal not only to young audiences but, with its Pirandellian playfulness regarding the lines between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy, to older ones as well.
As cleverly, if too abundantly, adapted by Timothy Allen McDonald, it doesn’t focus on the kinds of controversial topics for which Ms. Picoult is known, such as abortion, race, or school shootings. On the other hand, mental illness is lightly touched on, and one of the major characters, the non-binary Jules (Wren Rivera, terrific), skirts LGBT issues, but their presence is more important for emphasizing the theme of being an outsider than for addressing anything notably homophobic.
Seventeen-year-old Delilah McPhee (a memorable Arielle Jacobs, Aladdin)—15 in the novel—and her mother, Grace (the gifted Julia Murney, Falling), have moved to a new town where the socially awkward teen, previously a straight-A student, is having trouble fitting in. That’s largely because of the mean girl cliché she encounters in the form of Allie McAndrews (Aubrey Matalon, the excellent understudy for Hillary Fisher). The stereotypical high school crew—among them Ryan (Will Burton, a multi-talented comic standout), Allie’s doofus boyfriend, and Martin (Sean Stack, amusing), the social media troll—is more into postings, memes, and influencing than school work. Delilah is their handiest target. Mom, meanwhile, cleans the homes of Delilah’s classmates—including Allie’s—and gets the deadbeat treatment from her ex (unseen), leading to an eviction notice.
An avid reader with a vivid imagination, Delilah haunts the school library (Tobin Obst’s fine set is little else but sky-high bookshelves). She comes across a book—the single, self-published copy, if that’s even possible—by hugely successful author Jessamyn Jacobs (Vicki Lewis). It’s set in a Disney-esque world of English-accented handsome princes and beautiful princesses, sarcastic queens and unnamed ladies-in-waiting, not to mention a troll (the medieval kind), a mermaid, a wizardly villain, and a dog more human than canine; all are played by actors whose characters vaguely resemble those in the “real-life” scenes. Their stories, thus, intersect satirically with those of the high school characters who embody them.
The show shifts back and forth between “real” life, into which the imaginary Prince Oliver (Jake David Smith, perfectly cast) keeps intruding by opening a door with a singing “Hello!,” and the “Happy Ever After Hour,” where we visit the fairytale characters at their leisure. It’s only somewhere “between the lines” of these realities that Delilah feels she can be herself.
To the fairytale people, of course, their reality is as concrete as that of the real world is to Delilah and company. Delilah’s struggle to overcome her obsession with her fictional lover—she even enters the fairyland world—certainly suggests mental illness, especially when she’s counseled by a well-meaning therapist called Dr. Ducharme (John Rapson, first-rate). However, when Delilah eventually meets the fairytale’s author and her handsome son, such thoughts become moot; our heroine, having learned how to control her own story, has found a way to bring it to a happily ever after conclusion.
Between the Lines bubbles with enthusiastic spunk, cheeky dialogue (with an occasional PG-rated edge), bouncily rhythmic music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, and acting ranging from straightforward musical comedy to over-the-top cartoonish. Given the need for all but three actors to play multiple roles—Ms. Lewis plays five—the broadness can be partly justified by the need to differentiate them, but it can sometimes cheapen the atmosphere.
Jeff Calhoun’s vivid direction shows considerable imagination, as does Paul McGill’s sparkling choreography. Note the show-stopping “Do It for You” routine, featuring three mermaids holding hand-mics like a Motown girls’ trio, or the oh-so-cute tap number featuring Frump (Mr. Burton), the dog, who so wants Princess Seraphima (Ms. Matalon) to treat him like a man.
What works especially well are Gregg Barnes’s spirited costumes, Jason Lyon’s magical lighting, and Caite Hevner’s enchanted projections, combining traditional stills for multiple scenic backgrounds with delicious animated effects. There’s even a large painting-like “canvas” on which the wizard-like Rapskullio (Mr. Rapson, again) “paints” butterflies capable of flying off across the upstage screen.
What works less well is an overstuffed plot that loses its focus on Delilah in order to explore other avenues, like all that sweet but not especially funny stuff in fairyland. It simply bloats the lighthearted narrative to an excessively long two hours and 20 minutes (especially in a theater cooled to Arctic levels).
Given the household familiarity of Ms. Picoult’s name, Between the Lines will hopefully provide the languishing midtown theater scene with a summertime picker-upper. Just remember to bring a sweater.
Between the Lines. – A Daryl Roth et al. production, plays through October 2 at the Tony Kiser Theater/Second Stage (305 West 43rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.betweenthelinesmusical.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy