REVIEW: Penny Seats Theatre Company’s ‘Edges’ will take you back to your 20s

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Penny Seats Theatre Company’s cast for “Edges.” (Photo by Lauren London)

While watching the Penny Seats Theatre Company’s production of the song cycle “Edges” at Kerrytown Concert House, it’s hard to escape the feeling that its lyricist/composer team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote “Edges” while they were musical theater students at U-M (’06), and have since gone on to win Tonys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), Grammys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), and Oscars (“La La Land”) – had uncanny instincts from the start.

How else to explain the hilarious durability of the 2005 show’s most famous and beloved number, “Facebook Song,” when the wunderkind duo could have just as easily written an ode to MySpace, or Friendster, or any of the other once-popular, also-ran social media early contenders?

No, these Wolverines clearly had their finger on the pulse from the get-go; but they also realized that writing songs from their perspective – as young men stumbling into adulthood – had value, and that musical theater songs aren’t simply about conveying a feeling. They’re about storytelling, character, and having those elements work together to arrive somewhere new by song’s end.

And even when Pasek and Paul’s work in “Edges” occasionally feels not-quite-ripe or precious – they were just out of their teens at the time and only human, after all (I think) – there’s still a progression in each song that provides shape and movement. Of course, the twist at the end of the brisk breakup song “I Gotta Run” is visible from a mile away, as is true for the too-twee-by-half “I Hmm You”; yet you still get the sense that the songwriting duo’s instincts to so clearly convey characters’ fears and desires together are part of what put them on a head-spinning trajectory to success.

In Penny Seats’ production, directed by Laura Sagolla, six performers (Logan Balcom, Kasey Donnelly, Brendan Kelly, Emily Manuell, Kristin McSweeney, and Matthew Pecek) dressed in street clothes sit in the front rows of the KCH’s L-shaped space, blending into the crowd until the show gets underway. On Thursday night, some sound balance issues plagued the opening ensemble number, “Become,” so that it was really hard to hear the lyrics over the (otherwise rock solid) three-piece band, but as the show progressed, and soloists took the stage, the problem resolved itself.

Credit music director Leah Fox for locating the beating heart of each song, and Paige Martin for finding different ways to accentuate the lovable score’s many charms through choreography. In spite of its short, seventy minute run-time, “Edges” manages to make an impact – taking us all back to how the world looked from a twentysomething’s vantage point – and cover a good bit of emotional terrain, thanks in large part to PSTC’s top-notch cast.

For instance, “Monticello” transcends its cliché, “going to make tracks out of this podunk town and follow my dreams” message by way of Pecek’s soaring, impassioned delivery (despite a brief lyric hiccup on Thursday night); ditto Kelly’s “Boy with Dreams,” wherein a pizza delivery guy brainstorms inventions yet-to-be. And while “Facebook Song” stands alone – perhaps too much, actually – as “Edges”’ witty, blow-the-roof-off-the-place crowdpleaser, the show’s sensibility and emotional power comes through most vividly in songs like “Dispensable,” movingly sung by real-life fiancés McSweeney and Kelly, and “Ready to Be Loved,” Donnelly and McSweeney’s powerful duet of longing.

Perhaps what gives PSTC’s production a little extra spark, though, is its venue, since Kerrytown Concert House was where Pasek and Paul originally staged the show in April 2005. It’s kind of exciting, while hearing Penny Seats’ vocalists singing the show’s songs in that space again, to imagine being there at the start of the super-duo’s already-amazing career, when they were just finding their voice as artists.

So it’s only fitting that the theme that begins and ends “Edges” is “Become,” a spirited ensemble number about being simultaneously thrilled and terrified of where you might land. Though we already know the answer in Pasek and Paul’s case, it’s pretty fun to revisit that “this could go any number of ways” moment of un-knowing in their lives, by way of this charming musical snapshot.

Penny Seats Theatre Company will present one more performance of “Edges” on Friday, February 16 at 8 p.m. at Kerrytown Concert House. For more info, visit http://www.pennyseats.org/.

This independent review was partly funded by my Patreon page, which allows readers who value local professional theater criticism to pledge a monthly amount – anything from $1 to $30 – to support my efforts. If you appreciated this review, and would like to see more content like this, please consider pledging via the link above. Thanks!

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