The Bully Problem

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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When one encounters a new musical with the book, music, and lyrics written by the same person, the result is usually underwhelming. But Michael Gordon Shapiro defies the odds and adeptly manages each of these duties in his enjoyable show, The Bully Problem.

Kevin (James Everts) is the prototypical nerd working on his projects and avoiding the bullies at Van der Bort Junior High. His solution is laying low and focusing all his attention on getting into his father’s alma mater, a school for training the best scientific minds that is located on a remote island off the coast of Canada.

Kevin’s father has died within the last year, but he arranged to send his son the last invention he was working on--a robot prototype named Oscar (Jordan Mitchell-Love). Oscar turns out to be just what Kevin needs. He’s helpful with Kevin’s work on his qualifying experiment for the science school, and he has a knack for frightening the bullies.

When Oscar, disguised as a Swedish exchange student, joins Kevin at school, he also manages to save the other nerds. They’ve been hiding out in a forgotten basement. Oscar’s benevolent presence allows the group to empower themselves and achieve things they never thought possible.

Bullying is a serious issue, but The Bully Problem confronts it in a decidedly light-hearted manner. With nods to the film, My Bodyguard and, no doubt, scores of YA novels, Shapiro’s book doesn’t pretend to seriously examine the problem, and his bullies are cartoon characters. But the show does offer a feel-good narrative about being yourself and the advantages of finding a group of like-minded people.

Shapiro’s music is energetic, tuneful, and harkens back to a time when musicals and popular music shared a common sound. His lyrics have genuine wit and he’s not afraid to rhyme. The best song in the score is “Off Balance,”  sweetly sung by Kevin and his love interest, Margaret (Allie Costa), while on a field trip.

Director/Choreographer Joanna Sieyk ably guides the large ensemble, many of whom are double-cast, through the numerous group scenes. She is aided by a talented and appealing cast. Everts makes an engaging recluse and clearly charts Kevin’s journey from loner to hero. Costa has a big voice and a well-defined character, both of which she deploys for maximum effect. Mitchell-Love is a delightful scene-stealer as the perpetually smiling Oscar. He brings both a natural sweetness and a single-minded commitment to his often quite human robot.

Shapiro has the makings of a musical charmer that should play well in youth-oriented theaters, but it can still entertain older audiences. Deepening the characters, particularly the bullies, would add a resonance that could take the show to the next level.

Hollywood Fringe    June 6 – 29, 2019    www.hollywoodfringe.org