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Theater Review: The Voices Project

For two years, we've been hearing about The Voices Project. More than 1000 teens participated in this grand exercise in contemporary oral history -- a statewide quest to compile the concerns of Vermont kids by gathering their poetry, art and music.

Director Bess O'Brien led the team that drew on these resources to create the vigorous and enlightening theatrical production now touring the state. From all that raw material, the directors distilled 21 composite characters that are anything but cardboard. How does a stage production incorporate the range of issues facing young Vermonters without falling into a formulaic, public-service-announcement style?

As the show opened, it did feel slightly forced, as if following a recipe that read: 1) pick one from every group; 2) mix thoroughly; 3) let heartening lessons emerge. But nuanced character development -- bolstered by terrific writing and acting -- saved the day. No character remained a cliche, a representation of only one issue. The teen who is questioning his sexuality is also biracial, and worried about money for college. We see him in a tender scene folding clothes with his mom at a laundromat, and at McDonald's applying for a job.

The musical unfolds as a slice of life in a rural Vermont high school where the dreams of various characters are individually explored -- as in A Chorus Line -- but their lives are inextricably linked, a la Rent. Scenes take place in the mundane spots where everyday teen dramas and comedies occur: classroom, hallway, lunchroom, bus stop, parking lot, bedroom. One exception is beneath a railway trestle, where two homeless teens live.

In the songs and scenes, characters wrestle with issues of self, identity and desire. In the awkward limbo of adolescence, they struggle to figure out who they are, especially in relationship to each other, and what they want from life. Sometimes the question of fitting in is elusive; sometimes it is made very concrete, as when the "lunchroom popularity chart" shows exactly who is cool enough to sit with whom.

Although adults rarely appear on stage, their expectations are omnipresent. In a pivotal and slightly surreal scene from Act II, the cast engages in barefooted childhood reminiscences. Cherished as children, as teens they feel both neglected and put-upon. "You go from being the center of the universe to being invisible. You spend so much time being what they want you to be, you can't see who you really are." These conflicting demands lead to a tragic climax that renders the characters' differences insignificant and reunites them in grief.

Musically, the show has some weaknesses. The rock-combo band -- four college-aged musicians, led from the keyboards by music director Roger Grow -- competently tackled styles ranging from tango to hip-hop. But the quality of the singing could be most charitably called unschooled. Like some of the choreography, the vocals were more enthusiastic than refined. Wireless body microphones were unforgiving in group numbers, muddling harmonies and lyrics when even one person sang off-key or out of rhythm. The rough quality of the singing muted much of the impact of the original compositions, which were written by team of teen songwriters that stretched from Rutland to Greensboro.

The acting, however, was outstanding across the board. The 21 teens in the cast inhabited their characters with refreshing naturalism. They portrayed experiences convincingly and conveyed emotions with depth. Every member of the ensemble used clever details of gesture, look and speech to make his or her performance sparkle with authenticity.

Wade Besaw was a bundle of loose-limbed, frenetic energy as Zac, an ADD kid off his meds because his parents have "gone all hippie-organic" on him. His comic timing was impeccable. At the same time, his deep friendship with the troubled Danny was believable and poignant. One of these days, Besaw might find himself moving from Milton to Los Angeles.

Jericho's Annalise Shelmandine shone brightly as the big and beautiful Vita, wavering between self-confidence and insecurity. While many other characters try to mask their problems -- cutting, financial worries, a parent's drug addiction -- Vita can't hide her obesity. But with her dazzling smile and graceful dance steps, Shelmandine showed that the battle for self-esteem is winnable, even when one goes against social norms. As a touching counterpoint to the outgoing Vita, Jaci Larocque of Sheffield played the utterly marginalized Crystal, an overweight girl who lurked wordlessly at the fringes of the action.

It wouldn't be teen drama without star-crossed lovers, and the show's two couples both performed strongly. Jonathan Reid of South Londonderry played farm boy Ethan with lanky aplomb. Ethan is secretly wild about Daria, African-American über-student. Ruby Rose Burns of South Royalton confidently captured Daria's struggles: being black, adopted and a straight-A student in the "whitest state in the nation."

Lyndonville's Steve Shannon and Berlin's Dayna Cousins combine their dramatic powers to portray the relationship between Jesse and Rachel, a couple from different sides of the tracks facing an unexpected pregnancy. Shannon, a talented breakdancer, leads the show's most charming musical number, a cellphone-themed rap riff on the Verizon catch phrase, "Can You Hear Me Now?"

The Voices Project has special resonance for teens, and a discounted ticket price is meant to encourage their attendance. But the show does speak to adults as well. Many of the kid concerns are universal, like figuring out one's place in the social hierarchy or balancing family obligations with individual dreams; ditto smile-inducing moments, like making a friend laugh or reveling in the sweetness of a new crush.

An especially delightful scene involves Ethan returning from school to his remote farm -- he lives beyond the reach of the bus line -- in his beat-up truck. Daria has just agreed to come visit the cows soon; she's thinking of becoming a large animal vet. He's in heaven! Driving, singing, daydreaming of his new crush . . . the warm rush of possibility is a familiar feeling in a new romance.

Moments like this are greatly enhanced by sophisticated production values -- lighting, props, sound, costumes -- which are even more impressive given that the show is touring. That means everything has to be packed into U-Haul trucks and adapted to 10 different venues between Newport and Bennington.

The show's central visual element is an arc of scrims ringing the back of the stage. Pieced together in large irregular panels, the scrims are separated by thick, wavy black bands, almost like stained glass leading. They functioned primarily as screens, displaying a creative variety of background images throughout the play to show location changes, Internet chat rooms or sketchbook scribbles.

A recurring image is the red horizon, representing the lure of the big city to restless rural teens, especially those like Ethan, whose futures seem tied to a relentless life of hard work on the farm. ("Burlington!" the cast exclaims in unison at one point.) In a poetic soliloquy near the end of the play, Ethan reflects: "There's a red glow on the horizon. It keeps getting closer and closer. It eats up the stars and it's eating up this farm. This farm is my heart, just a few head of cattle, not enough to feed two men and buy one man's beer. Out there, out toward the lights, I have to go. With every streetlight, another star disappears; the price of milk drops. But out there, do I have a place?"

Every teen struggles to find a place. The Voices Project brilliantly articulates the unique challenges of young Vermonters. The least we can do is listen.

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Elisabeth Crean

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