by Matt Smith
“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” Such is the opening line of the new, Alex Brightman/Drew Gasparini musical It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which debuted at Feinstein’s/54 Below. On the surface, yes, it’s quite the macabre subject for a theatrical piece, following 17-year-old Craig Gilner (the phenomenal Colton Ryan) and his battle with depression. The material digs deep into emotional territory, with Craig checking himself into a mental hospital, and interacting with a ragtag group of fellow mental patients, whose respective diagnoses are only further exacerbated by their own accompanying set of unique quirks. But here’s the thing: its execution is so brilliant, you’ll become so invested in the piece, beyond this line, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.
While the musical itself is still in development (and Gasparini and Brightman have no shame letting you know that it is), you wouldn’t know it from looking at the style in which it’s presented. The production—presented as a concert with actors reading from scripts propped up at music stands—cleverly utilizes projection designs — from colorful pills to brain maps to confetti — which serve to emphasize the significance of “aha!” moments in the script (the opening slide of two feet dangling off the Brooklyn Bridge is particularly chilling!), and fill in missing plot details.
And what’s not missing—what they do have so far—is near-perfection. Gasparini’s terrific rock-pop score exudes a particularly Dear Evan Hansen-esque vibe, apt as the two shows are not dissimilar in subject matter, with lyrics like “We all have to fight now / to be in the right now / If no one’s right, then we’re all alright,” which not only fully encapsulate a given character’s inner thoughts, but are touchingly relatable to the audience at large.
Brightman’s book, adapted from the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini — while in need of a few noticeable gaps to be filled around the middle — contains an electrifying beginning and tearjerking end which tugs at all the heartstrings, pulling you in every emotional direction and offering poignant commentary on how we view ourselves and the world.
One such point, effortlessly combining story and song, comes from the mouth of Bobby (a moving Bryce Pinkham), an adult patient who, because of his condition, has been at the mental ward — and separated from his wife and child — for seven years. “There’s just too many questions / To feel like the would is understood / … We believe we’re exceptions / but that’s a victory you can’t redeem / ‘cause it’s a dream,” he sings, before openly admitting, “What if I’m not okay?”
The words drive home the point that even adults don’t have the answer to everything. Just because you’re older and lived more of a life than your kids doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out. Whether you have a diagnosis or not, we’re all just people, dealing with various pressures and issues. At the end of the day, no one really knows what they’re doing, and if they do, they certainly don’t have the perfect “right” answer. A pretty profound statement as is, only further emphasized by Pinkham’s pitch-perfect emotional delivery.
On that note, the talent all around is unmatched. The aforementioned Ryan simply soars as the misunderstood Craig, paired alongside such Main Stem heavyweights as Pinkham and Ann Harada, the latter of which also turns in a gripping performance. It’s all rounded out with a stellar ensemble cast, each of whom bring their own eccentricities to the inhabitants of the ward. (And please… special bonus points to fiesty firecracker Evie Dolan and her sensational delivery of the riveting “Did You Know?” Damn… girls got pipes!)
Again, it’s no secret the piece, now commissioned by Universal Theatrical Group, is still in development. But maybe — in choosing to present their materials at this early stage in the raw, bare-bones way they did — that was Gasparini and Brightman’s point. Life is messy. Sometimes we are unfinished. Sometimes we don’t have everything figured out. We’re, as they say in the show, “chaotic, complicated, [and] messy.” And sometimes, all we can do is just show up and deal with the cards we’re dealt. And that’s okay. As the show’s main message proclaims, “It’s all right not to be all right.” it’s all right to be unfinished. And, as this concert clearly exemplifies, “unfinished” can be pretty damn spectacular. It all depends — as Craig and the patients learn throughout the evening — on your point of view.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, with music and lyrics by Drew Gasparini and a book by Alex Brightman, was presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on March 20th. For more information, including news on next steps for this production, visit www.drewgasparini.com or www.54below.com.