By Josh Flanders
Just before curtain of 90210: The Musical at the Broadway Playhouse on the show’s opening night, Christine Elise took the stage to give an introduction.
A familiar face to most Millennials in attendance, Elise played “crazy” Emily Valentine on the iconic 90s TV show, Beverly Hills 90210, and her sharp introduction, peppered with f-bombs, set the perfect tone: If the 30 to 40-somethings in the audience are looking for two-hours of ridiculously silly and dirty send ups of their favorite teenage drama from childhood, they came to the right place!
90210: The Musical immediately explodes onstage with a fun energy and campy tone that reflects the love and irreverence writers Bob and Tobly McSmith have for their source material. Known for nostalgic sendups of cultural touchstones (Full House, Showgirls, The Kardashians), the McSmiths deftly heap on the melodrama and hyperbole for a journey through the history of America’s first teen soap opera, complete with enough inside jokes and references to iconic moments in the TV show to please any aging 90210 fan.
Never seen Beverly Hills: 90210? Not to worry. The musical follows the general timeline of the show, from the opening songs introducing the “new kids in town” (twins Brandon and Brenda) and the rich 90210 kids, all hilariously self-aware, singing about the myriad of issues the TV show will deal with over the coming seasons (think every after-school special; drugs, pregnancy, death, depression, losing one’s virginity, suicide, etc.). The characters and locations (the Spring Fling, the Peach Pit, Peach Pit After Dark, etc.) all get their own songs, some more enduring than others, and composer Assaf Gleizner does a remarkable job creating a variety of fun, catchy tunes that has the audience bopping their heads and clapping, all while maintaining the feel of a 1990’s top-40 radio station. While not every song connects with the same intensity, and some are funnier than others, the musical moves along at a quick pace making for an enjoyable evening.
90210: The Musical does not follow a traditional musical structure, and it doesn’t need to. Instead it tells a mostly linear story following the show, while swimming in character explorations and over-the-top dramatic tropes which reflect perfectly the tone of the original show. Director and Choreographer Donald Garverick does a wonderful job of keeping the actors in the center of the action, and the choreography reflects the emotional energy of the characters; overly dramatic, playful and tight as a unit. Simple staging offer various locations from the school to the Peach Pit.
Overall, the cast is spot-on in their portrayals of the angsty teens of yesterday. Ana Marcu plays Brenda with a fierce sharpness, peppered with tight comedic timing and a beautifully strong voice which commands attention, especially when she accepts her role as the “bitch” of the group, closing her character song with “I never needed this fucking show anyway” and storming off stage, reflecting the many entrances and exits made on the show and in real life. Ana also plays Emily, the U4EA-taking party girl (U4EA is Emily’s drug of choice, their version of Ecstasy) whose crazy antics make for some funny songs, and a surprising turn at the end.
Landon Zwick (Brandon) and Alan Trinca (Dylan) are perfectly cast as the male protagonists, brooding and moody. Alexis Kelley as the headstrong Kelly is wonderful and keeps the audience completely engaged. Yet it is Seth Blum who clearly stands out in this cast, playing multiple characters with an infectious energy. His portrayal of Steve as the strangely older-looking party-bringer is hilarious, but his overly-dramatic take on Andrea Zuckerman, the teacher and head of the school paper who has strong sexual undertones with Brandon, definitely steals the show. Blum and Kelley’s portrayal of Brandon’s parents (done with puppets) is one of the most brilliant, dirtiest and silliest parts of the musical.
Some character arcs do not play as well with the audience, such as Scott’s, whose main song and story arc revolve around his accidentally shooting himself with his father gun. Even though it was set to high-tempo music and a dance number, it is hard to pull off a fun song about an accidental shooting. Other characters portrayed from the show are given alternate names in the musical for comedic effect, like “Kelly Kapowski” (a character from “Saved by the Bell” also known as “Valerie Malone” on 90210), who comes on long enough to sing a silly slut song and leave.
While lots of characters make their entrances and exits, one character stands out: Tori Spelling, played by Caleb Dehne. His performance, like Tori’s, starts off underwhelming and intentionally unprofessional but later transforms into a slightly more confident version of herself reflecting the arc of both the character and real life actress. Dehne’s Spelling starts off delivering only a few lines the audience can barely hear and she hardly speaks at all during the first half, leading up to her major life conflict and song in the second half, “Will Tori Spelling Graduate?” Much of the comedy centers around jokes about her looks (“horse face”) and lack of acting ability, which wavered between silly and annoying. The choice to use Tori Spelling’s name (instead of her character’s) is an intentional reminder of how much more interesting the real-life drama was surrounding Aaron Spelling’s show than her actual storyline and how we, as a society, like to shame people we deem “unattractive.”
The characters’ self-awareness of their own foibles is the comedic “golden thread” that ties this musical together. Whether it’s Brandon repeatedly proclaiming, dramatically that, “I don’t dance,” Steve’s lamenting over his only storyline (he’s adopted) or that he looks like he’s 38, Dylan’s daddy issues, Andrea’s struggles with her feelings for Brandon, or Emily’s craziness, the actors and audience delight in sharing these inside jokes, which repeat enough for those unfamiliar with the source material to get many of the jokes too.
And like high school, this musical is full of lots of penis and vagina jokes, and does a good job of setting up a 1990s view of what is funny. (For example, U4EA will “make you feel gay but in a good way,” a joke that feels like a remnant of that time period.)
Overall, 90210 The Musical is a wildly fun and successful romp through nostalgia, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, peppered with a myriad of references and jokes that will warm any Millennial’s heart. It is no wonder that, during these tumultuous times, audiences want to return to the comfort food of yesterday where the pressures of life seemed just a bit more manageable because some spoiled rich kids in Beverly Hills were not the jet-setting, Twitter posting, out-of-touch 1%…they were just like us.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Beverly Hills 90210: The Musical” through September 17 at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut. More information and tickets are available here.