Samantha Brown seems to have a clear-cut path after graduation. The valedictorian of her class, she appears to be headed to Dartmouth College, where her mother was a proud alumna. However, she is starting to question whether what her parents and others expect from her is what she wants for herself.
The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown — the musical created by the composing team Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk — looks at a senior year that leads Samantha to question her choices. It will run through April 6 at Aurora Theatre as part of the company’s Brand Signature Series.
Actress Kylie Brown brings considerable appeal to the titular character, who opens the musical sitting in her car, unwilling to start the ignition. Her mom (Wendy Melkonian) and dad (Chris Damiano) have mapped her future: both Ivy Leaguers, they expect the same from their daughter. (Her dad is a statistician who can easily — and amusingly — rattle off the odds of any number of events.)
Samantha’s spontaneous friend Kelly (Stephanie Friedman) is already at college, having a grand time. Her parents aren’t crazy about that friendship. Jeremiah Parker Hobbs rounds out the cast as Adam, Samantha’s boyfriend. Mom has a sneaking suspicion the two are having sex and plies Samantha with cookies to have that conversation.
Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have earned notice in New York the last few years with well-received CDs and a children’s musical, Henry and Mudge. This is Samantha’s second full production — its 2011 debut was at Connecticut’s Norma Terris Theatre — and it has the earmarks of a young piece. It’s a bit frenzied and feels like a work in progress.
A few of the numbers are clunky, especially some of the early ones, and others feel repetitive. Driving is a huge theme here, starting with Samantha’s opening song, The Girl Who Drove Away, and the musical — 20 songs in the 90-minute play — overuses “moving forward” moments/metaphors. (Set designer Phil Male’s efficient set is highlighted by an onstage “car,” naturally.)
Like its main character, Samantha Brown can be a bit aimless and a little self-indulgent. Yet it manages to leave an impression. Director Justin Anderson, the company’s associate artistic director, can’t maximize all the numbers, but he connects with many of them. The musical really finds its stride after a tragedy strikes. From that point on, the score becomes less erratic.
Anderson is a director of range, who feels as comfortable with Les Miserables as with Angry Fags. He successfully handles this show, which emphasizes characters and narrative music rather than radical choreography and show-stopping numbers.
What ultimately makes Samantha Brown worth seeing, aside from many catchy songs, is the cast. Brown may overdo the youthful enthusiasm at times, but she makes Samantha an infectiously likable young woman. Melkonian, a musical theater veteran, can do this kind of role effortlessly; she does much more with the character than what the script gives her. Hobbs and Friedman are also nicely cast. Hobbs, in Serenbe Playhouse’s Hair ensemble last year with Brown, has an easy-going charm and a stand-out moment with his Run Away with Me serenade to Samantha as she juggles her possibilities.
The biggest surprise is the versatile Friedman; the musical peaks when she and Brown share numbers such as Freedom, which extolls the virtues of being able to make unscripted decisions.
Aurora Theatre should be commended for tackling a bold musical like this. Ann-Carol Pence, the company’s associate producer as well as this production’s music director, is a fan of musical theater, especially new shows, and this is a special project for her. This isn’t an easy musical or one that is always straightforward in its chronology. It’s not fully polished, but its solid moments stand out. Anyone fond of musical theater — especially nontraditional work — should check it out.
It’s easy to see why so many have jumped on the Kerrigan-Lowdermilk bandwagon. It takes some time for their score to gel here, but once it does, it can be lovely and affecting, especially when the likes of Brown, Melkonian and Friedman are delivering it.