Zipping by in an incredibly brisk 15 minutes, not a note nor a word is wasted in 21 Chump Street, an astonishing example of economical writing.
As a swift and tasty sampler of the inimitable style of current Broadway master Lin-Manuel Miranda, the pocket-sized musical blends familiar musical theatre tropes with “hard hitting” American current affairs to hurtle through an easily digestible scenario that is surprisingly affecting.
At the heart of the musical’s success is a totally relatable lead performance from Jake Fehily as impressionable “chump” Justin Leboy, a lovable schlub who follows his heart not his head.
Based on an episode of short-lived, cult-favourite US television series This American Life, the musical was written for the June 2014 This American Life live show at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Audience familiarity with hit 1980s television series, 21 Jump Street (and subsequent movies) greatly aids the instant understanding of the story. Miranda pulls a swift one, however, by focusing on a harmless kid, conflicting our sympathies between the consequences of drugs and the injustice of an innocent victim. It’s a neat accomplishment, especially with the few words available to tell the tale.
Compounding the dilemma is the supreme likability of the young policewoman, Naomi, played by versatile young talent Olivia Charalambous. The sting unfolds without a villain, all in the name of the prevailing power of the war on drugs. Charalambous is perfectly cast, flipping easily between baby-faced faux high schooler and serious cop.
Director Byron Bache, expertly balances the twin sympathies of the two leads, showing not a trace of preference towards either party
Lauren Edwards is the “hard hitting” journalist, whose pretty salmon pink jacket belies her serious intentions.
Nicola Bowman, Stephanie Wood and Kai Mann-Robertson infuse Justin’s classmates with a knowing wink as they bop along energetically with the funky choruses.
On opening night, sound (Celine Khong) experienced a few difficulties, and lighting (Jason Crick) was underdone, but the space was used very well to convey both the classroom and the interview studio.
Helmed by Stephanie Lewendon-Lowe, a band of six musicians nimbly rocked out the unfamiliar yet completely catchy score as if they had been playing it for years.
Melbourne fans of Miranda will not want to miss the chance to see 21 Chump Street.
21 Chump Street plays at Chapel off Chapel until 18 June 2017.
Tickets to 21 Chump Street and Ordinary Days can be bought separately or as a package deal.
Photos: Ben Fon