The Bully, a critically acclaimed musical for young audiences, tackles the bullying epidemic with smarts, humor, and plenty of dancing, is a great conversation starter.
Talk about your parenting hot buttons: There’s one that hasn’t skipped a generation since caveman days and, thanks to tweeting, texting, talk shows, Facebook, and blogging, it’s escalated beyond “deal-with-it” ubiquitous to heartbreaking. I’m talking, of course, about bullying, that universally hateful kid-centric pastime responsible for countless nightmares, wedgies, swirlies, and, in one too many cases, homeschooling.
Left to right: Cameron Perry and Riley Thomas in a scene from “The Bully”
And while media-wise it’s cyber-bullying that dominates today’s headlines, schoolyard bullies of the classic “lunch-money-stealing/beat-’em-up/humiliate-’em” breed are still around callously terrorizing the small, the bookish, the insecure, and the geeky.
Which is why Vital Theatre Company’s The Bully, a critically acclaimed musical for young audiences that humorously and thoughtfully tackles the bullying epidemic, is a show too wonderful to ignore.
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Bringing the Message
With a book by award-winning playwright David L. Williams (The Winners) and score and orchestrations by John Gregor—best known to Vital Theatre fans for composing the company’s long-running hit Pinkalicious, The Musical—the show is directed by Linda Ames Key, one of New York’s most prolific educator-directors, whose talents span both adult and children’s productions, including Twilight Los Angeles: 1992, The Laramie Project, and Three Days of Rain (acclaimed grown-up fare), and, for Vital, Velma Gratch, The Klezmer Nutcracker, A (Tooth) Fairy Tale, and The Nastiest Drink in the World.
According to Key, there’s a single thread that attracts her to any script, be it adult- or child-related. “For me, it’s the message that’s important, and that message always centers on treating people who are different with respect and tolerance. That’s something kids need to hear, but really, every show I direct has to do with that theme.”
Key, who is clearly one of Vital’s major motivating forces—her titles include producer, producing director, and education director—describes The Bully as a show that looks at bullying from several points of view. “Stereotypically, bullies are portrayed as jocks, but it doesn’t stop there. What about academic bullies—i.e., brainiacs who make others feel inferior in the classroom—and social bullies, that ‘mean girl’ prototype, for instance?”
And somehow, in less than an hour this clever show manages not only to hold a mirror up to all of them, but to also offer ways to deal with, and even fix, the situations that arise. “It allows the conversation between parents, children, and teachers to start,” contends Key.
As for the storyline, in addition to several familiar angst-defining moments (parental heebie-jeebies alert: school-day nostalgia isn’t always pretty), there is a cunning plot twist that steers the action into an unexpected direction. The show kicks off in gym class where the obligatory/odious climbing of the rope includes the crowd-pleasing “Gym is Evil” production number.
Shortly thereafter, two sixth-graders at different ends of the athletic stratum—jock/bully Steve (Riley Thomas) and nerd/underdog Lenny (Cameron Perry)—suddenly find themselves mutually discombobulated outcasts when they board a bus that takes them to the wrong school, where the domineering Mega (Hilary Fingerman) and her fawning minions ride roughshod over the two newbies (“You’re In Meg’s World’s Now”). Fortunately, everything is resolved as flaws and fears surface and understanding and acceptance (de-bully-fication, if you will) win out in the end.
A Cast of Young-uns
Accelerating the fun factor is the music, choreography, and overall commitment of the engaging young cast that also includes the versatile threesome of Kathleen Choe, Justin Garascia, and Matthew Krob, who bounce from one zany role to another.
“When we were casting The Bully we were looking for triple-threat performers,” notes Key, citing the importance of hiring actors who could deal with complex text. “We didn’t want one-note bullies—these are multi-layered characters”—who just happen to sing and dance as well as anyone you’ll find on Broadway. Fortunately, says Key, they landed a company that could do all they hoped. “These are incredibly good actors who are able to handle anything we throw at them,” she says.
A good thing, too, since this is a super-high-voltage show with upbeat musical numbers featuring a lot of choreography tapping into cheerleading and gym activities. “There’s always lots of activity taking place onstage,” Key says, adding that the six-member cast is “way up there” in the stamina department, ranging in age from just out of college to mid-20s.
Still, this is not the first cast or incarnation of the The Bully. It made its debut in December 2005, returned to Vital for a limited run throughout the tri-state area, along the East Coast, and across the Midwest. Notably, the present edition has been tweaked and polished. There’s one less ensemble member as well as a handful of staging and script improvements.
“It’s one of my favorite projects,” Key says. “It resonates with theatergoers, and their reaction has been incredibly positive. Plus we get feedback from the audience that we incorporate into the script. But what pleases me most is how much this show provides an opening for kids and parents to have non-threatening conversations about bullying.”
Where: Vital Theatre Company, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, 4th Floor
Ages: 4-12 (with special appeal for kids 4-7)
Running Time: 55 minutes
Playing Schedule: Saturday-Sunday, 11am and 1pm. (Weekday school holiday performances at 11am and 1pm on February 21-23)
Reservations: 212-579-0528; www.vitaltheatre.org
10% OFF CODE FOR OUR READERS: BBAP9