THE FIX IS IN Is it better to embrace the self, or change?
Teenagers can be mean. They can pick up on — and crucify other kids for — the barest hints of insecurity, let alone more glaring disabilities or difference. In the high school on Fairbridge Island, rich jerks delight in terrorizing the blind girl and the psychologically damaged boy, but those two outcasts have much more subtle quirks than the new girl, Anna: She has a genetic disorder that has given her fish scales instead of skin. As Anna (Eileen Hanley) settles into her new life on Fairbridge, spurned by the "cool" kids and loved by the self-described "freaks," she must come to terms with her skin and how to exist within it, in The Freaks Club, a new musical by MK Wolfe and Thomas Adams. Al D'Andrea directs this upbeat and heartfelt show for Snowlion Repertory Company, at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.
While Anna has difference in common with her new friends, the blind Cookie (Autumn Pound) and the damaged Jake (Benedetto Robinson), who cannot touch or be touched, she is also distinct from them in an important way: She has come to this island specifically to avail herself of an experimental cure being researched by the eccentric geneticist Dr. Lily (Laura Houk), despite the resistance of her widower dad (Alan Forrest McLucas) That is to say, Anna has a way out of her freakiness. But does she really want it? On a simple modular set with a three-piece band, led by Kellie Moodie, tucked in an upstage corner, the members of the Freaks Club contend with the jerks, their own internal love triangles, and the prospect of what happens if Anna does become "normal."
The high school students of this story are immensely engaging and well-drawn in the hands of D'Andrea's cast. The conventionally attractive meanies -— Linda (Märgen Soliman), who has puce suede boots, a new Beamer, and a pill habit, and Anthony (Zachariah Stearn), with a fedora, one black glove, and ridiculous gyrating "moves" — are unapologetically vapid, vicious, and vain. Stearn makes Anthony an unwittingly buffoonish caricature of himself, and Soliman's Linda is super in her sneering, mellifluous bitchery.
The kids that they torment have refreshing self-awareness, skepticism, and candor in the hands of Hanley, Pound, Robinson, and Andrew Shepard, who endearingly plays Jake's little brother Skunk — a slower kid than the rest of the witty Freaks, but the most wide-open of heart. Hanley, painted with wisely unspectacular brown scales, has a refreshingly this-is-what-you-get affect; it's a delight to watch her matter-of-factly beat Linda at her own fish-insult game. Anna's new BF Cookie is the more dramatic of the girls, and with her fantastic voice and nimble comic timing, Pound is superb. And Robinson's Jake, with his slender good looks and watchful gaze, is sensitive and subtly acted.
The simple three-piece band does a fine job accompanying on quite catchy tunes, and while some of the cast's voices are weaker than others, together they make beautiful music, particularly in the fun and sharply written title song. But the most stellar standout number is Cookie's, as with lithe, vertiginous phrasing and open-throttle attitude, Pound nails the irreverent and devastatingly witty "Everything's Jake."