Lacks the Prerequisites

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ike a freshman essay that's too much in love with big words and big ideas while still showing some promise, Life 101 offers some pleasant musical numbers but isn't nearly as profound as it would like to be.

Donovan Stohlberg and Yvonne A.K. Johnson's book sets up its premise with stereotypes, stretches them through predictable situations and clutters its second act with a series of unconvincing emotional revelations. On the other hand, Stohlberg -- in combination with L.B. Hamilton's lyrics -- knows how to write an affecting love ballad, and Johnson's energetic direction packs a lot of business into the small confines of the Studio Theatre (proving that musicals can work downstairs at the Civic). But even the best parts of this American Life don't add up to a very satisfying whole.

It's an uneven evening, all right. Life 101 takes us to London on an academic tour with a group of students who are apparently majoring in Stereotype Studies. (Their semester ends on April 1.) Characterizations include the loner, the nerd, the arrogant writer and his ex-flame, the jock, the romantic ditz and the sorority girl.

From the opening number, "Today Is the Day" (which is reprised as the finale), this show's characters are entirely too convinced that they're about to have a really, really profound experience. (It's the first of several eye-rolling moments.)

Midway through Act One, Stohlberg and Hamilton have written a kind of self-assertive feminist ballad for the leading lady (Kendra Kimball) that's one of the show's stronger moments. Her bravado is just a front, she's yearning for the truth, she intends to trust her own insights from here on out -- a bit preachy, perhaps, but a well-constructed tune that Kimball delivers with conviction.

An important point here, however, is that Kimball's character, Emily, broke out into song because of an emotional need at that point: In her scene with her ex-boyfriend, the arrogant writer with writer's block (Douglas Vinson, who sings nicely and does a good job of looking perplexed when his literary pretensions are exploded), Emily suddenly feels an intense need to assert herself.

Contrast the following scene, set in London's National Gallery. We get an ignorant dismissal of Monet, then a superficial response, then an educated rejoinder. The ensuing number -- academic, focused on art history, not really about any gotta-sing-about-it-right-now emotion at all -- falls flat. And the worst of it is that, soon after, the writer who had dismissed the Impressionists (pretending to hate what he doesn't understand) is praised for rattling off a fancy-sounding response to one of the gallery's paintings. It's obviously bullshit academese that he's spouting so he'll sound impressive -- and yet the writer gets congratulated for his insight. Unfortunately, that kind of pretense permeates this show.

And yet Life 101 has its moments. Johnson cleverly sets up one scene as choir practice -- only to have all five choristers turn on the pompous writer and lecture him in song. It's a surprising, funny moment that doesn't take itself too seriously, unlike so much of this show.

What follows, unfortunately, is a let's-get-the-nerd-drunk scene, tee-hee. We can see what's coming for miles. But just like life itself, Life 101 has its temporary triumphs, its momentary embarrassments. The first-act curtain song, "In Those Eyes" is a nice ballad, sung by Vinson as he's getting all gooey over Emily again.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & onductor and keyboardist Gary Laing injects energy throughout, displaying particular skill in the entr'acte. Which would be a pleasant diversion, except that, having set up all these one-note characters, Life 101 devotes its second act to unexpected reversals -- too many, too quickly. Gender bias, economic disparities, insecurity, moral failings, disease -- no TV-movie crisis is spared.

The best voice in the cast belongs to Tony Caprile as Professor Ryan, who sings engagingly, hopefully, even if his solo ("When Night Calls") is undercut by schmaltz. First Caprile is asked to be Paper Chase haughty, then he's in a join-hands-and-twirl dance number, then he's tugging tragically at our heartstrings.

And yet just before all that -- not terribly well prepared for -- comes another of Stohlberg and Hamilton's affecting ballads ("If we can't have tomorrow, will you give me today?") with a lovely melody, sold powerfully onstage (especially by Kimball) and adding up to ... an overly rapid reconciliation of the focal couple.

It's back and forth like that all night long: some affecting moments and promising episodes spread out among too many long and meaningful dramatic scenes. Life 101 needs a remedial class or two before it'll be ready for upper-division course work, let alone the tenure track.

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