When Delilah and her preoccupied, deeply pained mother move to a different town after her parents’ contentious divorce, the seventeen-year-old struggles with her lack of acceptance by the mean kids at her new high school and the disconnect of her broken family. To escape it all, she embraces the fantasy of her favorite children’s book and talks to its hero Prince Oliver, who comes to life, responds, and romances her, when no one else will listen. Based on the 2012 bestselling book by mother-daughter authors Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, the new musical adaptation by Timothy Allen McDonald (book) and Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson (music and lyrics) of Between the Lines, produced by Daryl Roth and playing a strictly limited Off-Broadway engagement at the Tony Kiser Theater, is an enchanting mix of the harsh reality of not fitting in with the wishful fantasy of a fairytale and an empowering happy ending.
Directed by two-time Tony Award nominee Jeff Calhoun (Newsies; Grease), the show is entertaining, funny, and uplifting, while delivering a serious message to young theatergoers (the target audience, with which the performance I attended was filled) and everyone of any age who has ever felt like an outsider, feeling trapped in a life they wouldn’t have written for themselves. The cast of ten is led by the outstanding Arielle Jacobs (Aladdin), bringing her stellar voice and sincere empathy to the role of Delilah, who immerses herself in a story that speaks to her (as all good books should, says the school librarian, herself enamored with Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), forms a bond with a simpatico Prince, who, too, is without a father, and is also unhappy with the life journey his fictional character takes, and finds the support and courage to rewrite her own real-life narrative.
As the dreamy Prince Oliver – or Ollie, as he tells Delilah to call him – Jake David Smith is both dashing and sympathetic, with a regal demeanor, a sensitive soul, and a golden voice that more than justify her fascination with him. He is the perfect match, sharing their first kiss with one another and excited about her gender-swapped plans for him to be the ideal apron-wearing meal-prepping househusband (about which he knows nothing, so she slyly gives him her own female-centric version of marriage in current times). He also adroitly and humorously closes the door on himself whenever Delilah closes her book and turns in unison with her as she ardently moves with it from side to side.
The leads are supported by a committed featured cast – Will Burton, Jerusha Cavazos, John Rapson, Wren Rivera, Sean Stack, Julia Murney, and understudies Heather Ayers (for Vicki Lewis) and Aubrey Matalon (for Hillary Fisher), on the date I was there – each playing dual or multiple roles in Delilah’s actual and imaginary worlds. Among the standouts are Rivera as the pivotal Jules, a self-assured and feisty nonbinary student and Delilah’s only friend at school, who gives her much-needed solid advice on how to change her life and how to deal with the bullies that post cell-phone videos on social media to humiliate them; Will Burton, doubling as the dense and vapid high-school jock Ryan (who follows his malicious girlfriend Allie like a puppy and has no “Inner Thoughts” to share) and the fairytale dog Frump, infatuated with his human Princess and expert at “Out of Character” tap-dancing (with lively choreography by Paul McGill); and Rivera, Cavazos, and Ayers as the mermaids Ondine, Marina, and Kyrie, who belt out the feminist dictum “Do It For You” to Delilah in consummate girl-group fashion. With fish tails.
The script cleverly alternates between the courtly language of the fairytale figures and the students’ colloquialisms of today, and the score encompasses everything from heartfelt solo ballads and romantic duets to flawless group harmonies on pop-style tunes, backed by the terrific seven-piece band of conductor Chris Gurr on keyboard, Michael Koutsoupides on violin and keyboard, Jessica Wang on cello, Deborah Avery on reeds, Dillon Kondor on guitar, Goerge Farmer on bass, and Adam Wolfe on drums and percussion (with music direction by Gurr; music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Greg Anthony Rassen; additional supervision and arrangements by Daniel Green; and music coordination by Howard Joines).
Costumes by Gregg Barnes, hair, wigs, and make-up by J. Jared Janas, and projections by Caite Hevner (with which Rapson as the artist Rapskullio magically interacts) effectively transport the audience from the realm of the fairytale to our present time, as do Jason Lyons’ beautiful lighting and evocative sound by Ken Travis. The scenic design by Tobin Ost efficiently shifts from school to bedroom, rooftop, and the story’s other locales with the roll-in of simple pieces of furniture and the pop up of a piano. It is also indispensable in delivering the important theme of the value of writing and reading, in a set lined with bookshelves, fit with doors that open, like the pages of a book, into the land of Delilah’s imagination.
With a running time of more than two and a half hours, the largely engaging production could, for me, use some tightening. The dysfunctional relationship of mother and daughter becomes, at times, a bit redundant and melodramatic, the scenes of psychological counseling at school and minimal concerns about Delilah’s emotional state offer little insight, and the over-riding idea to be your true self is repeated more often than needed to get the point across to the audience (even though it takes the characters, including the teen clique of antagonists, a while to figure it out). The show concludes with an update on all of their futures, and since it’s based in fairytales, it’s no spoiler to say that everyone achieves their happily ever after – a welcome and life-affirming ending for now and always.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.