The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Between the Lines
The idea is a fascinating one, unique and interesting. What lives and breathes Between the Lines, in a book, in a play, or in a musical? That’s the question to unpack when watching this new Off-Broadway musical based around a Young Adult book co-written by best-selling American author Jodi Picoult (“Wish You Were Here“) and her daughter, Samantha van Leer. And it’s all wrapped up so nicely in this new fanciful musical with music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson (Disney’s “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure“) and a book by Timothy Allen McDonald (The Book Thief musical adaptation with Samsel, Anderson, & Picoult), where a young socially awkward 17-year-old girl by the name of Delilah, played beamingly by Arielle Jacobs (Broadway’s Aladdin) has her difficult life thrown up into the stars when a handsome prince in some very tight tights steps out from the pages of a fairy tale and professes undying love to her. As princes tend to do, I guess. Just go see the more mature (and more musically solid) version of fairy tales coming to life on Broadway in the phenomenal revival of Into the Woods.
But more on that later (I’m working on that Broadway review later this week). Between the Lines does its job well, but falls somewhere short of being ready for prime time. As directed by Jeff Calhoun (Broadway’s Grey Gardens) with choreographed by Paul McGill (Broadway’s Hedwig…), the musical plays its heroine well, focusing our attention on the determined but somewhat lost Delilah as she tries to, well, not really find her place in high school, but more like, stay out of everyone’s way and hope no one really sees her. Her newly divorced mother, played a bit off-track by Julia Murney (Broadway’s Lennon) as if, half the time, she’s in a different, more serious musical trying hard to do an Alice Ripley imitation (she does much better and has more fun in the fairytale world), is not much help with her struggles, diving headfirst into work and studying to deal with her anger and grief that her husband and father to Delilah has left them for a much younger, more flexible yoga instructor. It’s a pretty cliched plot point, lined up neatly beside many other equally simplistic cliches, including the second-rate Mean Girls squad that inhabited Delilah’s school.
With all that bullying by the mob of four, Delilah turns her attention to a fairytale book she finds in the library, seemingly the only copy self-published by the author many years ago for her son’s enjoyment. Magically, when she opens the book, she comes face to face with the charming young Prince at the center of the tale, beautifully portrayed by the handsome Jake David Smith (Broadway’s Frozen), who is somewhat desperate to get out of his own story and into hers (that comment sounds far more sexual than any part of this very PG musical, trust me). The fictional life he is living inside of the lines, surrounded by his mother, Queen Maureen (Murney), her Lady in Waiting (Vicki Lewis), Prince Oliver’s should-be love interest, Princess Seraphima, perfectly portrayed by Hillary Fisher (TNG’s Cyrano), and a number of other odd-ball but fun creations, doesn’t seem to be fitting him as well as those tights – kudos to costume designer Gregg Barnes (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting) who finds all the balances within; and he flies forward, dashingly and ridiculously, into the arms of Delilah hoping to discover some freedom and true love that doesn’t exist in his line by line story.
Along the way, we have been given possibly far too many songs, albeit a lot of them are fun and enjoyable; like the witty bully song, “Inner Thoughts“, the delicious mermaid song, “Do It For You” magnificently performed by Jerusha Cavazos, Wren Rivera, and Vicki Lewis, or Lewis’s hilarious solo performance of “Mr. Darcy and Me“, that take the long way around this yellow brick road to get us to the royal gates and the finale that has Delilah learning a lesson or two about life and love and happiness. Naturally. And here’s where a show doctor might have come in handy; tightening up this tall tale with a few snips here and there and hopefully giving this cute musical a sharper focus and a clearer road forward. It might just make the whole thing feel more immediate and engaging, and far less overblown, particularly in the real-world scenarios.
One of the brightest lights in Delilah’s real world comes in the form of the wonderfully fun Vicki Lewis (Broadway’s Anastasia; “NewsRadio“) magnificently playing the feisty librarian, who dons a number of wigs and costume changes to continue to delight throughout this eclectic little musical. She seems to know where she is, what her reason is, and to whom she is playing to. This is equally true for the wonderfully engaging Wren Rivera (Apple TV’s “WeCrashed“) as fellow outcast Jules as well as fairytale mermaid Ondine. Will Burton (Broadway’s Kiss Me, Kate) as both dumb jock Ryan and adorable pup Frump also shines most impressively bright, giving us solid moments of engagement and well-formulated choices that are both funny and endearing. I could watch him wag his tail for the whole show.
Pretty much everyone in this cast has fun in their given dual roles, both in Delilah’s real troubling world and her fantasy version inside the book. Very “Wizard of Oz“, with slices of Mean Girls tucked in between Cinderella moments of enchantment. I mean, in that one scene closer to the end of Between the Lines, with Delilah lying down in the hospital bed after falling from the rooftop where she likes to read and dream, I almost expected her to say, “And you, and you, and you, and you were there“, finalizing the idea that there is, basically, “no place like home.”
The ingenious set, designed creatively by Tobin Ost (Broadway’s Newsies), with strong lighting by Jason Lyons (Broadway’s Hand to God), a clear sound design by Ken Travis (Broadway’s Memphis), and a wonderfully intricate projection design by Caite Hevner (Broadway’s In Transit), adds layers of book-smart fun to the production with panels from the stage floor flipping and angling their way up, or pages from a book unfolding and transforming themselves into secondary uses, much like the cast. Overall, the cast does an exemplary solid job giving life and joy to both worlds, especially in the way they unpack the upside downs of all the characters, and I don’t mean that in the scary “Stranger Things” kinda way. But, we must admit (without shame) that this fun fairytale musical is no Into the Woods. At least not yet.
But I hear you. It’s not the fairest comparison. As Into the Woods is a firmly established musical, one of the great ones by Sondheim, that has been perfected and nurtured to what it is today. (And that Broadway revival is total perfection, for the most part.) Whereas Between the Lines is a new, beautifully engaging beast, in need of some love and care so it may too grow into something magnificent. It is, most definitely geared towards a much younger different demographic, most likely teenage girls who didn’t manage to snag a(nother) ticket to see their favorite musical of all time, Wicked, or maybe Aladdin. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be doctored into something smarter and sharper, with a deeper subtext and subtler emotional clarity. And if there is any grand theme in this review is that I hope this new musical is given its fair chance to grow up strong over the coming days. Because it still could use some work and a sharper directorial eye to make it stand up tall against all the “Giants in the Sky” that are living and singing, most Wicked-ly, on Broadway right now.
Between the Lines opened July 11, 2022, at the Tony Kiser Theater and runs through October 2. Tickets and information: betweenthelinesmusical.com