L&S ONLINE AMERICA

by DAVID BARBOUR - (Mon., Jan. 28, 2008)

The youthening of the musical theatre continues apace. We've had High School Musical -- now comes Wanda's World, the middle school musical. (At this rate, it won't be long before adults won't be allowed into theatres unless accompanied by someone under 12). The good news, however, is that Wanda's World is breezy and bright, a fine calling card for a number of new talents.

Wanda's World is a cable TV show, in which Wanda, the hostess, hands out coping tips to tweens bedeviled by such brain-teasers as how to handle one's first day in a new school, or how to score a prime lunchroom seat. (The insanely catchy title number establishes Wanda's skill at solving problems in rhyme.) Sadly, however, it's all a fantasy; Wanda is really the new girl at Cheese Valley High School, and she's destined to stand out, thanks to the port wine stain on the right side of her face. The problems aired in her fantasy call-in show are really her own.

Instantly branded an outsider, Wanda dreams of being a television journalist, and, sent to report on a football game, she befriends Ty Belvedere, the local sports hero and all-around heartthrob. Ty is also a candidate in a three-way race for school president; one of his rivals, a bundle of hip-hop-styled resentments named P. J. Dunbar, plots to undermine Ty's campaign by catching him and Wands on video in a compromising position. Will Wanda fit in with the school's Mean-Girls set? Will she accidentally deep-six Ty's campaign? Is there a place on the air for a bright, but less than cosmetically perfect, reporter?

These burning questions are resolved in 90 minutes of fast-moving inconsequential fun. Eric H. Weinberger's book never aspire much beyond a number in which Wanda lectures Ty on the important of including soy chesse, for the lactose-intolerant, on Pizza Day. Even with the short running time, there are moments of padding, most notably when Wanda and Ms. Dinglederry, the Irish lass who teaches Spanish, make like a pair of Latin divas, in a number that seems designed principally to allow Valerie Wright a moment to kick up her Broadway heels a bit.

But, most of the time, Wanda's World coasts along quite nicely on the strength of some bright jokes, a peppy score, and a cast that has charm to burn. Weinberger has an eye for the way kids (mis)treat each other (Wanda's nickname quickly becomes Blotches) without getting preachy about it, and, in Wanda, he has created an uncommonly appealing character. Beth Falcone's music has an interesting way of working a slight dissonance into the kickiest pop tune, and her lyrics are surprisingly clever.

Having adult actors play schoolkids is almost never a good idea, but Lynne Taylor-Corbett keeps her cast in check, with results that are surprisingly appealing. As Wanda, Sandie Rosa has an offhand charm, oodles of enthusiasm, and a nicely understated vulnerability-she can also belt a number to the rafters when required, as in the case of eleven o'clock spot, "A Face Like Mine." James Royce Edwards brings his considerable musical theatre skill set to the role of Ty, infusing this self-absorbed character a goofy, innocent charm and a likeable trace of self-doubt. Both of them should soon be finding longer-term gigs in other, bigger, Theatre District venues. Leo Ash Evens makes a strong impression as P.J., even if he has to carry the weakest part of the plot, and there's good work from Wright, Chris Vettel as another teacher, and Heather Jane Wolff as the as Cheese Valley High's career politician.

With this show and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Beowulf Boritt has seemingly cornered the market on middle schools. Here his work is appealingly spare, consisting of a three panels that revolved to become lockers, and a handful of benches. A scrim placed high on the upstage wall, in front of the four-member band, serves as a screen for Matthew Myrhum's Pop Art projections. Aaron Spivey's lighting blends colors from conventional units and LEDs to give the entire proceedings the primary-colored palette of a comic book. Jennifer Caprio's costumes clearly delineate everyone's place in the high school pecking order. Brett Jarvis' sound design is less than ideal-in the early numbers, the voices had a thin, slightly tinny sound; then again, the 45th Street Theatre may not be the ideal acoustical environment for this kind of show.

While probably not destined for a commercial transfer, Wanda's World should have a lively future in high schools and family-friendly theatre companies. It's a light-on-its-feet entertainment that has something to say, without being pushy or sentimental. It's a perfectly fine night out for kids -- and the adults they bring with them.