Signature's 'Glory Days' Gives Voice to Bittersweet Youth

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Guys being guys, the four young men who meet up on their high school bleachers in "Glory Days" to renew old ties must first get out of their systems all those aggressive greeting rituals that adults find insufferable: You know, all that dishing-out of sexual insults, the noisy boasting about sexual prowess, the overactive horsing around.

Once those male-pattern bonding exercises are completed, though, this fresh and vivacious one-act musical, receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre, gets down to the real and surprisingly moving business of the evening: nailing the intense sensation of inadequacy that boys can experience on the precipice of manhood.

The buoyant product of the talented young team of composer-lyricist Nick Blaemire and librettist James Gardiner, "Glory Days" swiftly, tunefully and yes, authentically latches onto the rhythms of late adolescence and plays them back to us as the music of wrenching transitions. Over the course of 15 spirited songs and 85 minutes, fissures are exposed in friendships, especially those lacking a capacity to adapt to new facts. It is a show that reminds us that even in comfortable suburbs, you can't really go home again.

The musical has been directed by Eric Schaeffer with a fluent appreciation of the nervous synergy that occurs when high school pals, reuniting after a freshman year at college, pass their anxieties and insecurities back and forth like a Nerf football. And a quartet of outstanding actors -- Steven Booth, Andrew C. Call, Adam Halpin and Jesse JP Johnson -- manage to evoke all the endearing, amusing and irritating impressions we entertain about young men who travel in packs.

Although nothing much actually happens in "Glory Days" -- the musical takes place in real time on the edge of a field that none of them ever was good enough to play on -- one is left with the somewhat contradictory feeling that nothing passes too quickly. Or, rather, Blaemire and Gardiner, in the effort to keep the production at a finger-snapping pace, end up placing too much emphasis on getting through a number, and then on to the next.

The result is that some of the vital things they're seeking to dramatize about these young men and the times in which they live never have the chance to sink in. In particular, the central character, Booth's Will, is asked in the production's final stages to make an unconvincing psychological pivot. He's required to absorb quite a lot of disorienting information and -- because it's time for his climactic song -- come to terms with his own evolving place in the world. Will needs more than a few bars of music to consider this, and we need more for the thought process to make sense.

The authors, too, after the style of "Rent," devise a strong song for Halpin's Skip, the most cynical of the four, about the spoiled generation of which they're all part. In "Generation Apathy," the terrifically stoic Halpin sings of smart kids who "don't try." "And what I'm still wondering," he adds, "is what is the most expensive thing I can get for free?" It's a vital element of the musical, but it's also an underdeveloped one -- the only time we get an inkling of what any of these characters thinks about the world.

Adroitly, Blaemire and Gardiner offer a portrait of teenagers many of us recognize from high school, or perhaps even were. Never having been admitted to the cool crowd -- in this unidentified school, earning a spot on the varsity Fighting Beavers football squad was the Holy Grail -- they formed their own clique. A year after graduation, they've returned to "remember what we were like." And, oh yeah, to perpetrate a prank to avenge all the petty humiliations they endured.

Halpin's Skip is the brainiest, having gone off to the Ivy League, and Call's Andy is the dimmest, with the biceps of a jock wannabe who spent a lot of time on his dad's home gym. As played by Johnson, Jack evinces the sweetest countenance, and Will, the organizer of the mischief, is the romantic most deeply invested in the other three -- the one who has to believe that they can all remain best friends, even as their paths diverge.

Ultimately, "Glory Days" tests the durability of their loyalty to each other, after one of the four confides something that his friends are not quite certain they're prepared to hear.

What separates the musical from other tales of life after high school is the emotional terrain it explores once the secret is out. In the final sequence of songs, including the affecting "Other Human Beings" and the even more powerful "Boys," the degree to which the friends are provoked to bare their souls, to assert the need to have their own voices heard, binds us to them irresistibly. You might, in fact, be surprised to find yourself becoming a tad emotional over guys who would not be caught dead showing real feelings themselves.

"Glory Days" also represents the very best use Schaeffer has made of the company's larger space, the Max, since the move a year ago to its new headquarters in the Village at Shirlington. That might be because it suddenly looks like the old, converted garage that was long Signature's home. With the help of set designer James Kronzer, Schaeffer has brought down the scale and made the Max feel as intimate as the garage. The simple set -- some metal bleachers on a carpet of green -- is framed by a towering square grid of the kind of bulbs that light a football field for night games.

Mark Lanks's lighting design employs the grid as a flashing variation on a scoreboard, and at times, it feels a bit too Vegas. As in the narrative hiccups, however, this imperfection is on the margins. For even if the juice were completely turned off, "Glory Days" would still be a beaming source of musical energy.

Glory Days, music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, book by James Gardiner. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Costumes, Sasha Ludwig-Siegel; sound, Matt Rowe; music direction, Derek Bowley; orchestrations, Jesse Vargas. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit

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