Relapse Review: Mentally ill youth who can really sing.

Bryan is bulimic.  Melinda is schizophrenic. Kendra has borderline personality disorder. Newcomer Adam is an addict. They are young patients in group therapy at a rehab ward, presided over by a concerned if aloof doctor and a caring nurse, in “Relapse: A New Musical,” a show that tests one’s priorities for appreciating musical theater.

On the one hand, Louis Josephson, who is still a student at Juilliard, has composed a competent rock score,  full of propulsive arrangements, with soaring arias, duets and ensemble numbers delivered by a young appealing cast of powerhouse singers.

On the other hand, the premise is familiar, the way it plays out offers little fresh insight or originality, and neither the lyrics nor the dialogue offer much in the way of subtext or subtlety. Everything is spelled out.

Melinda the schizophrenic surrounded by her Intrusive Thoughts: Vinny celery, Nicole Lam, Mia Cherise Hall (Melinda), Zummy Hohammed, Audree Hedequist. Above: Bryan the bulimic (Randall Scott Carpenter) surrounded by the Intrusive Thoughts.Ashley Alexander as Margot the caring psychiatric nurse.

In an early musical number, “Psych 101,” for example,  each of the characters sings about their problems, introduced by performers portraying their “Intrusive Thoughts.” So:

Thought: First, bulimia nervosa

Bryan: As I binge and as I purge
I feel even more control
But as I empty out my guts
The gnawing grows in my soul…

Thought: Addiction

Adam: It’s hard to understand sometimes
Where self-medication starts
But maybe another drink or two
Will put out the fire in my heart

That there are actors portraying “Intrusive Thoughts” in “Relapse” might remind you of the “Inner Thoughts” in “A Strange Loop.” But the device was used in that Tony-winning musical to expand and complicate the central character. In “Relapse,” the Thoughts largely just reiterate what’s already obvious

“Relapse” doesn’t have what you could call a plot. The patients describe their problems and mostly bicker with one another, although also occasionally support each other. Bryan announces that he will soon be leaving the group, and the ward, for an eating disorder facility in Chicago; this makes the other patients upset and envious (“We’re stuck in this prison while he gets to go out and actually start his life”), which didn’t make any sense to me; how is going from one facility to another any kind of freedom?  Margot the nurse and Dr. Carlisle privately lament the difficulties of treating the patients, and accuse each other of having the wrong approach. After some 90 minutes, the show ends in what the nurse calls “breakthroughs that have been months in the making” that seem to consist primarily of some upbeat singing about not living in fear. It took me until the very end to understand that the musical was apparently meant to be unfolding over a single day of group therapy.

Yet, if the book and lyrics of “Relapse” struck me as being on the level of a student effort, nearly every one of the eighteen musical numbers at the performance I attended was greeted not just with hearty applause but feet-stomping cheers. I know that many in the audience were friends and family of the cast and creative team, but I doubt that’s the full explanation for the enthusiasm.

The struggles of emotionally troubled young adults are both timely and timeless,  a staple of just about any genre I can think of – songs (Fire and Rain by James Taylor), novels (I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg) movies (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” “Girl, Interrupted”) and, yes, musical theater (“Next to Normal,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Spring Awakening,” “Jagged Little Pill,” ) It’s hard not to feel compassion for such vulnerable characters (and perhaps they evoke memories of our own insecurities, in adolescence or otherwise.)  A show that depicts such struggles, however well or poorly developed, can feel like an act of personal acknowledgement and of hope. 

And also, if you’re not a stickler for dramatic coherence or lyrical ingenuity, the music rocks.  Here’s the song “Wasteland” on Soundcloud, from the “Relapse” concept album.

Relapse: A New Musical
Theatre Row through September 23
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $27.50-$57.50 
Book & Lyrics by J. Giachetti
Music by Louis Josephson
Direction & Choreography by Joey McKneely
Music Direction by Jordon Cunningham
Cast: Ashley Alexander as Margot, Randall Scott Carpenter as Bryan, Maria Cherise Hall as Melinda, Troy Valjean Rucker as Dr. Carlisle, Jacob Ryan Smith as Adam, Becca Suskauer as Kendra, Vinny Celerio, Audree Hedequist, Nicole Lamb and Zummy Mohammed as Intrusive Thoughts, David Rabinowitz and Isabel Rodriguez as Off Stage Intrusive Thoughts.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply