By Samuel L. Leiter
A word of advice for anyone writing a new musical: don’t play a medley of pop hits before the show starts and during its intermission. As demonstrated by the generic pop rock score in Contact High, the latest addition to the plethora of high school musicals (Bring It On!, Heathers, Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill, and so on, ad nauseum), your music is likely to pale greatly by comparison. I’m sorry to add that Contact High has very little else capable of patching over its musical shortcomings.
The musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Kyle R. Hass and Jeremy Swanton, both in their early 20s, was born as a screenplay by Hass during his high school days. Not long after, he and Swanton adapted it into a musical. This was seen briefly in 2017 at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre as Science Fair: A Game-Changing New Musical, after which it was further developed, including the production of a cast recording, available on various streaming services. It’s now at Theater 511, the former Ars Nova venue in Hell’s Kitchen.
Contact High’s promo material emphasizes its thematic concern with the issue of heroin addiction in America’s high schools (nary a word is said about opioids). Heroin addiction plays a major role in the show—an addicted girl named Jean (Gabriella Marzetta) gets to shoot up twice—but, like another of its so called “issues,” school gun violence, the treatment is for melodramatic effect, not serious consideration. One might as easily claim the show is about how to safely stash your cash, since there’s a scene demonstrating the cracking of a safe using hydrochloric acid.
Hass not only cowrote this “coming-of-age” show, but plays one of the leads, Haley Walter Keys. He also directs and shares the choreography credit with Dana Norris, whose onstage duties include two roles, a drug dealer and a grievance counselor. Hass’s partner, Swanton, plays the other male lead, Benjamin.
Haley and Benjamin are Chicago high school science whizzes belonging to the Science Alliance club, whose seniors are competing for a place in their state’s science fair competition. Four actors play the other Science Alliance members—Jason (Johnny Rabe), Stacy (Erika Reyes), Todd (Keith Mankowski), Abigail (Iyana Colby), and Karen (Laura Thoresen)—and the energetic staging (some of it in the central aisle) often moves them about by using rolling, white desk chairs.
Both boys get involved in drug dealing, Benjamin because he needs the money for tuition if he makes Princeton, Haley because he has to pay off some hoodlum who’s threatening his life.
Benjamin’s girlfriend is Jean, the junkie, whose father is the drug lord, Landon Casey (E.B. Hinnant, who also plays the school’s Vice Principal). Jean becomes tight with Haley, who is also befriended by Karen (Laura Thoreson), a lesbian science student who supports him after he’s kicked out of the Science Alliance.
Haley, the genius of the lot, suffers from haphephobia, a condition meaning “fear of being touched,” which makes him attack anyone who comes in contact with him (thus contributing to the cleverly punning title). These elements are wound around the disappearance before the play begins of a student named Tommy Wheeler.
Posters seeking his whereabouts are plastered all over the walls, constituting the chief element of the uncredited, minimalist design, which has just enough room for a five-piece orchestra. The mystery of Tommy’s disappearance and, as it turns out, death comes and goes amid the various other plot concerns until the truth finally emerges.
There’s a great deal of teenage angst in this humor-challenged work. The characters often sing aspirational, inspirational anthems about overcoming their personal problems, but barely any of it hits us in the gut about the pain and pressure they’re suffering. The multiple plot threads are tangled, the characters lack depth or charm, their dialogue sounds like anything but what high school students would say, and some of the lyrics are borderline dreadful. Many songs are shouted, and the sole standout performance belongs to Thoresen.
As Benjamin, Swanton has a deer-in-the-headlights stare and nasal voice that makes him questionable as a romantic lead. When he sings to Jean of love, he faces her leaning forward with hunched shoulders and unmoving, hanging arms that look more like he’s about to bite than embrace her. Hass, who plays the ultra-nerdy Haley with Beatles-like bangs, is so goofily costumed it’s a good thing there’s no designer to critique.
Contact High’s title may be clever but it doesn’t deliver what it promises.
Photos: Kian Martinus
511 W. 54th St., NYC
Through September 7