Review: ‘Pop Punk High’ at (le) poisson rouge

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After a critically-acclaimed showcase presentation last winter, Pop Punk High (with original book by Anderson Cook, music and lyrics by Ben Lapidus, and direction by Felicia Lobo) has returned, for a limited Off-Broadway engagement at (le) poisson rouge. The current incarnation (produced by Cook and Not the Normal Productions) is more than just a hilarious high-decibel musical parody celebrating one angst-filled teenage year in suburban post-modern America; it’s the centerpiece of a full night of curated events that immerse us in the look, sound, attitude, and experiences of alt-youth culture circa 2003.

Shortly after the doors to the venue open, the audience is warmed up with a pre-show set by a contemporary punk band (Brooklyn-based industrial-strength Fat Heaven was on for the performance I attended). The cast’s final bow is immediately followed by a post-show costume contest (patrons are invited to dress in their best period-style attire; willing participants are then brought up on stage for the audience to choose the winner). The night concludes with an after-party, featuring a DJ and live-band pop-punk karaoke. You can opt to enjoy of all of the offerings, or to partake of the show alone – presented in true rock-concert fashion, with the audience standing, responding, and moving around the intimate space – for a single ticket price (a limited number of higher-priced VIP tables are available behind the main floor).

Ben Lapidus and Kelly Krauter with the band. Photo by Olivia Hern.
Ben Lapidus and Kelly Krauter with the band. Photo by Olivia Hern.

Set at a fictional high school dedicated to the eponymous genre during the 2003 academic year (when the music of Green Day, blink-182, and Sum 41 was all the rage), the wildly comical and stridently raunchy story revolves around Derek (played by Lapidus), a “needle-dick poser” who dreams of being the cool guy and his school’s new Pop-Punk King. It all becomes possible with an aerosol can of AXE Body Spray stolen from the office of the principal (Jacob Grover), which conjures the “ghost-slash-genie” of pop-punk icon Avril Lavigne (Kelly Krauter), who will grant him three wishes – a top-of-the line skateboard for defeating the principal’s son Skeet (Patrick Sweeney) in front of their classmates; beating him again in the annual Battle of the Bands; and growing a fifteen-foot penis – all in the hopes of enabling him to take the hot girl Amanda Bunkface (Jess Kaliban), “the Avril of my eye,” away from his nemesis. But there is one condition: Derek must find Lavigne’s killer and doppelganger, with the help of his best friend and class valedictorian Tib (Amanda Centeno), to release her from eternal confinement in the can.

Sound ridiculous? It is! It’s a spot-on laugh-out-loud farce of juvenile dreams, filled with the pop-culture references, language, aesthetics, and emo of the era, and ending in some silly twists and universal lessons learned: “be careful what you wish for;” being “cool” isn’t really everything you thought it would be; and “giving a fuck” is even more important and rewarding. In its coming-of-age theme and morals, it’s noticeably similar to the smash-hit musical Be More Chill (but with Pop Punk High set in an earlier decade, with a different style of music, and an aerosol genie, not a mini-computer pill, that makes the unpopular guy cool) – both with a clear Zeitgeist of creating new work that appeals to younger generations of prospective theatergoers.

Jacob Grover, Patrick Sweeney, Jess Kaliban, and the ensemble. Photo by Olivia Hern.
Jacob Grover, Patrick Sweeney, Jess Kaliban, and the ensemble. Photo by Olivia Hern.

The ensemble of actors and musicians is across-the-board terrific, with powerhouse vocals and outrageously funny, but still recognizably empathetic, portrayals of the rebellious and anxiety-ridden students and principal. And McLean Peterson and Eric Weigand turn in sidesplitting performances as the protagonist’s overly-indulgent Mom and Dad (“Mr. and Mrs. Derek’s Parents”), who deliver an anachronistic tap dance and chorus-line kicks in their featured number “He’s Growing Up.” The cast is supported by a transportive set by Hannah Levesque, with a graffiti-covered back wall and a metal link fence with a No Trespassing sign, colorful lighting and strobe effects by Andrew Hunt, and punk-style costumes by Olivia Hern.

Be forewarned: if you’re averse to loud music and don’t want to stand for the entire performance, you might want to arrive early or purchase a VIP ticket (which includes a long-sleeve tee-shirt and a CD of songs from the show) to score a cabaret table and seat. But if you’re a fan of experimental theater, rock concerts, and the titular-style music, Pop Punk High makes for a “so totally badass” alternative experience in musical comedy.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes for the show, without intermission. For the entire pre- and post-show experience, allow approximately three hours.

Pop Punk High plays through Thursday, November 1, 2018, at (le) poisson rouge – 158 Bleecker Street, NYC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Deb Miller
Deb has written reviews, interviews, and feature articles for Stage Magazine, theartblog, and Inferno, and is a lead writer for Phindie.com and the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice. She is a judge for Theatre Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and previously was a Voter for the awards under the former Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Deb holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware, has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and has taught at the U of D, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers-Camden, Hussian School of Art, and Rowan University.

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