The shadow of Glee—that ubiquitous television series about misfit teenagers in a glee club—must inevitably fall on Winding Road Theater Ensemble's newest production, Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate.
Even though Speech and Debate was a surprise off-Broadway success back in 2007 (before Glee arrived on small screens in 2009), the parallels are inescapable. In the play, misfit teens come together to form a speech-and-debate club, driven by outcast Diwata (Lucille Petty), an ambitious would-be song-and-dance performer not unlike Glee's main character, Rachel Berry.
While not a musical, the play has several musical moments, such as a brilliantly awkward climatic dance to the Scissor Sisters' "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'." (Petty, along with Live Theatre Workshop's Amanda Gremel, choreographed.)
In a nutshell, if you love Glee, you'll love this play. More impressively, even if you cannot stand Glee (full disclosure: I'm not a big fan) or have never heard of it, you'll still love this production. While I occasionally took issue with Karam's script, director Christopher Johnson and Winding Road have created a smart, well-oiled, rainbow-colored charm machine that I was powerless to resist.
A great deal of its appeal comes from the bouncy performance of Petty as Diwata. Her character has a steely and precocious resolve to become a musical star, an ambition that has been thwarted by her failure to get cast in any of her high school's theatrical productions. Turning to speech and debate as an outlet, she manages to strong-arm openly gay Howie (Evan Werner) and awkward would-be journalist Solomon (Emilio Zweig) onto the team through a combination of blackmail (both boys have secrets related to the town's sex scandal), enticement and genuine compassion.
Petty gives Diwata energetic charm, but also nuance. You never doubt that under her demanding exterior, Diwata has a depth of feeling and intellect. Still, there's no doubt that her theatrical ambitions come first and foremost. "My need to perform has taken a consistent back seat to all of your homo drama!" she imperiously complains at one point.
Werner and Zweig are charming as the more-reserved Howie and Solomon. Neither cares about the speech-and-debate team. Howie wants a gay-straight alliance at school; Solomon wants to break a big story for the school's newspaper, but he's been stymied by the school's policy of avoiding controversy in print.
Over the course of the play, these three form an unlikely bond. The script commendably avoids sinking too far down into the sentimentality this could trigger. Like real teenagers, the characters are often vulnerable and confused, but they are also ambitious and guarded—unlikely to get too mushy, in other words.
Amy Erbe completes the cast in a dual role as a teacher and reporter, providing a brief glimpse of the adult world and its well-meaning but limited view of adolescence.
The actors all have a confident, polished energy that comes from Johnson's solid direction. Johnson is everywhere in the production—besides directing, he's responsible for the sound, lighting, costumes, set and graphic design, all of which work well.
This is Winding Road's first show in Beowulf Alley's theater; in its fourth season, the company finally has a regular (and relatively large) space to work in. Johnson has given the expansive stage a minimal set, decorated with some nice thematic touches, such as rainbow-colored composition books adorning the walls. The screen backdrop in the opening scene is especially impressive: It turns into a giant computer where an instant-message conversation plays out between an older man and a teenage boy. Their electronic chat becomes a crucial plot point.
Occasionally, it feels as if Karam is trying to cram every hot-button contemporary issue about teenage sexuality into the script. Closeted gay politicians and teenage boys? Check. Sex education in public schools? Check. Sex and the Internet? Check. Coming out as a gay teen? Check. Gay teens sent to "straightening" religious camps? Check. Teacher-student sex scandals? Check. Bullying in schools? Check. Virginity loss? Check. Teenage pregnancy? Check. Abortion? Check. The last two feel tacked on, crammed inorganically into the script in a way that does not feel earned.
Subtlety is not Speech and Debate's thing. The characters live in Salem, Ore., and Diwata is obsessed with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, set in Salem, Mass., during the witch hunts. The parallels between Diwata and The Crucible's Abigail (a teenager who starts the witch rumors out of a desire for revenge and attention) are made painfully apparent over and over.
Speech and Debate does not venture into the tragic territory of The Crucible, as it easily could have. Instead, it stays tartly humorous, so much so that the heavy-handed and oft-repeated Crucible references start to feel like dead weight.
Still, by the time the actors break into "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," the joyous energy of the performers and the tight direction of the show may well have won you over. You'll forget about these quibbles when you start dancing in your seat.