‘Between the Lines’ Off Broadway Review: The Brothers Grimm Would Approve

Mortals and sprites fight for the soul of a new musical; the humans lose, fortunately

between the lines
Matthew Murphy

The new musical “Between the Lines” does battle with itself over being another “Dear Evan Hansen” or a brand-new “Purple Rose of Cairo.” Fortunately, the Woody Allen in the creative team wins. (Sorry, I still watch some of Woody’s masterpieces.) “Between the Lines” opened Monday at the Tony Kiser Theater.

Just as fictional characters want to escape from a movie in “Purple Rose,” the Prince (Jake David  Smith) and a few of his comrades in fairytale land lament being stuck in a book having to repeat the same plot wearily ever after. When “Between the Lines” follows these fantastical types, the book by Timothy Allen McDonald and songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson are, to use a Disney cliché, absolutely enchanting. Smith even manages the amazing feat of making sexy look very funny.

The Brothers Grimm would applaud, because these fairytale characters are also a little raunchy, which is a wonderful surprise for a musical, based on Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer’s young-adult novel, that is geared for an adolescent audience. Don’t let the show’s pedigree deter you from seeing it if you’re old enough to vote and have been for a few decades.

Jeff Calhoun’s almost-always inventive direction plumbs effectively the more ribald thoughts of a 17-year-old girl, Delilah (Arielle Jacobs), who harbors vivid sexual fantasies about the Prince in the book. Her classmates make fun of her for reading a fairytale, having somehow forgotten that their age group singlehandedly turned the “Harry Potter” books into a publishing/movie/theater/T-shirt behemoth.

If only Delilah weren’t such an after-school-special trope. She is much more Evan Hansen than she is her namesake from the Bible. You’ve seen this teenage character before: new kid at school, nerd, outsider, intellectual wearing glasses, raised by a single mother (Julia Murney) who’s too busy juggling jobs to notice her kid’s suicidal tendencies. Blessedly, Jacobs doesn’t cry her way through the show the way Ben Platt did in his mawkish Tony-winning performance in “Dear Evan Hansen” and also his deservedly derided performance in the movie version. The advantage Platt had is that Evan Hansen is a chronic liar. Delilah lacks that edge, and so while she doesn’t shed tears at the drop of a nasty Instagram post, she is kind of whiny throughout. Especially dreary are her predictable confrontations with Mom.

The upcoming Broadway musical “Kimberly Akimbo” avoids this family-squabble problem by using it for comic relief, and the mom and dad there never reform. Sarah Silverman didn’t learn that lesson, and her sentimentally drawn parents in “The Bedwetter” sunk that new musical. Delilah and her mom come close also to capsizing “Between the Lines.” Is there anything more predictable than teenage angst? Yes, it is songs like “Start Again Tomorrow,” “Leaps and Bounds” and the inevitable female empowerment bomb “I’m Not Through.” If only.

What rescues the show, besides the fairytale crew, are several bright spots on the reality side, including Delilah’s quirky teachers (Vicki Lewis triumphs in several roles), her school therapist (John Rapson), and those bully classmates (Will Burton, Jerusha Cavazos, Aubrey Matalon, Sean Stack). All are clever foreshadowings of their far more colorful fictional counterparts. Samsel and Anderson even give them two of their sassiest songs, and coming back-to-back in the middle of act one, “Inner Thoughts” and “Mr. Darcy and Me” take “Between the Lines” into musical-theater Valhalla.

Delilah, troubled by her romantic fantasies, asks a literature teacher if she has ever harbored such thoughts regarding a fictional heartthrob. Lewis answers in the affirmative to stop the show with “Mr. Darcy and Me,” complete with a brunette Fabio ripped from the pages of Jane Austen. The school’s four meanies immediately top that musical winner with the throbbing “Inner Thoughts,” which is so good at probing the psyche of teenage tyrants that it begs for a sequel. When is a bully going to throw off his or her supporting-player status and be the star of the show?

In Delilah’s high school, the only other wet sweatshirt is Jules (Wren Rivera), the non-binary character who befriends her. Jules is essentially Jo from “Jagged Little Pill” before they got lesbianized on their way to Broadway. Fortunately, Samsel and Anderson spare Jules the kind of screeching solo a la “Pill” that made Lauren Patton a Tony recipient for imitating the creature that tears out of an astronaut’s stomach in “Alien.” McDonald’s book gives Jules a few clever retorts that show us how a nonbinary person can be just as nasty as the bullies. Rivera has much more fun in Act 2 playing a deliciously seductive mermaid who leads a fish trio in the rousing “Do It for You,” a siren warning to women who believe the promises of a handsome hunk.

Murney also shines explosively when she gets to shed her Mom jeans to play the fairytale’s domineering Queen. Otherwise, her kitchen-table songs belong to a more pandering musical.

Not only does Calhoun take a break when this mother and daughter are alone on stage. At these moments, the otherwise brilliant design team also leave the premises. Tobin Ost’s set, Gregg Barnes’ costumes, Jason Lyons’ lighting, and, above all, Caite Hevner’s whimsical projections obediently spring back to life as soon as the Prince and Company reappear. It’s the difference between inspired and automatic pilot.

“Between the Lines” looks Broadway-bound. All this fairytale needs is a good witch to trim away some of the human fat acquired from lesser, sugar-encrusted musicals.

“Between the Lines” opened Monday in New York City.