Woody Weingarten

Reviews, etc.

‘Guppy’ is an inspirational youth theater production

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆

Title character (Jackson Wylder, in wheelchair) is surrounded by high-school friends at a New Year’s Eve party in “Guppy.” Photo by Rob Wilen.

Amateur or semi-pro youth theater companies can’t be expected to produce shows that equal those of professional troupes.

Especially when it comes to musicals.

Even when the production is a double-family affair.

But don’t try telling that to the A Theatre Near U outfit because they undoubtedly won’t listen.

The truth is, their new world-premiere musical at the 162-seat, black-box Southside Theatre at Fort Mason in San Francisco, “Guppy,” comes damned close.

Jackson Wylder, a Columbia University theater student in his seventh ATNU role, plays Guppy (aka Jeff Eben) with amazing composure — making me wince at (and believe) the character’s agonizing mental and physical pain (he’s paralyzed from the nipples down after having broken his neck and crunched his spine in a water-skiing accident), and making me revel in (and believe) his joy of accomplishment.

Although Tony Kienitz’s original book and lyrics don’t offer a coda in which the real-life Eben eventually becomes a high-school coach, principal, award-winning educator and deputy mayor of Fresno, it does depict him morphing from a depressed, alienated victim to a fulfilled human being determined to alter the meaning of the word “normal.”

While he ultimately returns to school, lands a smoochy girlfriend and prepares to drive a specially equipped van paid for through 25,000 donated dollars.

Yeah, you might say the storyline’s uplifting and inspirational (with only a tolerable modicum of preachiness).

Guppy (Jackson Wylder) is consoled by his mom, Sandra (Cindy Weisberg). Photo by Rob Wilen.

Helping make sure the audience understands those sensations are married supporting actors Cindy and Aaron Weisberg, who utilize strong voices and acting chops as they play Guppy’s stoic but understanding mom and his relentlessly over-the-top booster, Coach Burkhard, who encourages him to consistently look at his wins on any given day — and Austin Nipper as Ralph (pronounced Rayfe), a caregiver who in one wild juncture leaps atop a dresser to strum his guitar and serenade his bedridden, newly acquiredbuddy.

Those four are amply supported by a double-digit ensemble from Bay Area high schools and colleges across the country that ensure their good-timey energy level stays skyscraper high at all times; that chorus words are discernible; that the simple, effective and humorous choreography of Cara Kienitz, daughter of co-directors Tanna Herr and Tony Kienitz, works seamlessly; and that no cues are muffed.

And happily, a three-piece band never drowns out the singers.

Praiseworthy, also, is the injection of sporadic humor.

Coach (Aaron Weisberg) encourages disabled Guppy (Jackson Wylder) to look at his wins. Photo by Rob Wilen.

Although I did have an issue with Kienitz repeating teenage slang over and over in his plot-forwarding lyrics (“Rad,” for example), that habit didn’t subtract from my enjoyment in any major way.

Including the just-under-two-hour show’s 15 songs by composer/musical director Jeremy Erman.

By the way, FYI, when his boating accident occurs, Guppy is a star lineman for the Clovis Cougar’s high-school football team, class president and all-around pre-adult Mr. Popularity, a so-called big man on campus.

At the same time, Clovis, a 106,000-population city just 6.5 miles northeast of downtown Fresno, is known as “the gateway to the Sierras” and isn’t far from Yosemite National Park.

Could the musical “Guppy” compete with SHN’s touring Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” the Berkeley Rep’s “Kiss My Aztec!” or even the adult Novato Theater Company’s “Spring Awakening”?

Nope.

But I hope this review will convince you to plunk down a few bucks anyway to support a youth ensemble that tries so hard and, perhaps surprisingly, delivers so much.

In the program notes, Herr (who’s also the show’s producer) and her husband-collaborator indicate they’d be “super glad” if lots of folks show up to see the show, which they’ve aimed to be a “thank-you present” to Gup.

They suggest, too, in teen lingo dating back as far as the early ‘50s, that theatergoers will “have a bitchen time.”

Assuredly, both my wife and I did.

“Guppy” will play at the Southside Theater, third floor Bldg. D, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco, through July 28. Night performances, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays; matinees, 8 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: contact@atheatrenearu.orgor 415-3454-7575.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

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