A new musical at the Lantern Theater, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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The road to getting a new musical up and running is often a bumpy one,  and composer Robert Kaplowitz and Kittson O’Neil’s new musical MINORS struggles to find a good balance between book and music. It also takes on the very complex issues surrounding the real story of the infamous “kids for cash” scheme in the early 2000s,  in which judges launched a campaign of cleaning up Luzerne County, PA through ‘zero tolerance’ policy of dealing with juvenile cases.

Their real motive was that they eventually got kick-backs to the amount of $2.8 million. The juvenile ‘offenders’ sentenced to jail time without any legal defense, their guardians duped into signing waivers for lawyers believing charges against their kids would be dismissed, when the exact opposite was true.  

The Lantern Theater ‘Minors’ is an ambitious show and Kaplowitz and O’Neill have written a gutsy score, full of musical variety.  But in this premiere run it hits some major snags in an episodic scenario that tries to do too much, perhaps what made sense on the page, but gets hazier on stage.

Director Matthew Decker overcomes some of the waywardnesses, by making the most of the more fully conceived elements of the narrative and directing a fine ensemble cast.

Set in a mining town that has now hit hard times, and the show opens with an inspired overture sung with in dissonant keys by Sav Souza, a ‘Breaker Boy’ coaldust covered phantom of the mines.  Souza plays other characters- a cop, a court clerk, a neighbor- in the play and also have marks of coal on their faces.

TJ is an aggressive white teen champion high school wrestler who gets high and battles with his mother, Angela, a single mom working at Pep Boys, who gets tough trying to keep him out of trouble. To scare him she calls the cops because she finds a joint in his coat pocket. Meanwhile, Kelli is a talented African American student, apparently without a guardian (but that is never spelled out) who hangs out with TJ, gets high and stupidly swipes a busted road sign from a construction site. They both end up being charged with crimes. 

13-year- old Frankie Jr. a biracial teen, his parents separated and living with his father, a veteran who buys his son a competitive racing bike in a parking lot deal, but it is the son is sent up for receiving stolen goods. Amber, a pre-college white teen, thinks it’s funny that she has created a fake social media, posing as her vice principal, but no one is laughing when she is charged with online harassment.

Souva, a nonbinary actor, with a very versatile voice, from a lilting balladeer to a clarion show belter.  They sing O’Neill’s lyric “Coal flows out, bodies flow in…” a scabrous indictment about how, absent the mines, these people themselves become the commodities in this bankrupt town.

Mekhi Williams brings such natural presence to Frankie, Jr. but needs to attack the part a bit more. Meanwhile, he uses minimalism to wonderful effect at key moments. In contrast, Marybeth Gorman is volcanic expressing her rage at the corrupt system that has destroyed her life.   

Things get very dicey after the court scene, where all of the kids face The Judge in an altogether static dramatic turning point, the show struggles to gain a firmer footing after that. The intersecting stories of the teens in prison bounce back and forth as each families’ lives are turned upside down. The first act works but overall the second strikes as a rushed middle draft, still the complete conviction of the cast, overrides its scrambled structure.

 Paul L Nolan is the criminal Judge, with perfect villainy pitch, although his singing voice on ‘Who Says’ was a flat as a splintering gavel, he rallied a bit in his second song, even sounding a mercifully, a little Lou Reedy. Terran Scott is wonderful as Kelli, who beat the judge at his own game. She befriends Amber, played with such natural goofiness at first by Grace Tarves, then grows up before our eyes working with Kelli to exposing the real criminals. 

Ben Dibble was so convincing as the villain in the Lantern’s production of “Measure For Measure” earlier this year, is just as convincing the hapless father Frank Sr. who gets his son in trouble then can’t help him. Jenny Eisenhower also wonderful as Amber’s mom, who is always sipping white wine as she tries to connect with her daughter. 

The band is terrific and are in view positioned behind an upstage glass panel. With keyboardist/musical director Amanda Morton conducting guitarist Nero Catalano, drummer Mike Reilly, and bassist Josh Totora.  Kaplowitz and O’Neill are on solid-footing musically and dramatically with their sung dialogue cycles especially in the folk-rock numbers.

Other musical highlights include Souva and Brady Fritz deliver the climatic ‘Clum’ with a stirring folk ballad of the town’s lost souls, as TJ sits alone in the mine contemplating his fate.   Fritz and Terran Scott also have great vocal chemistry in the number ‘Steal the Light.’

Mike Inwood’s lighting design, in tandem with Nick Embree’s rustic tiered sets built off of layers of coal detritus, speaks volumes. And speaking of structures, with a more concrete narrative shored up,  can end up a substantive docu-musical that obviously has a lot of heart and a lot to say. 

One inescapable component that strikes as too vague in ‘Minors’ is the fact that in reality most of the kids who were incarcerated were African American and Latino.  Reference to this is only given a glancing reference. And one real live post-script to the play would be that the two Pennsylvania judges who perpetrated ‘kids for cash’ scheme are now sitting behind bars for their real crimes.

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