No theatrical genre is more quintessentially American than the musical. From Show Boat to Oklahoma to West Side Story to A Chorus Line to Rent to Spring Awakening, the American musical continues to evolve, breaking new ground and exploring new themes, and nowhere more so than in the intimate “chamber musical.” Daddy Long Legs, Adding Machine: The Musical, Hello Again, Loving Repeating, Group: A Musical, and Glory Days are but a half dozen chamber pieces raved about on these pages over the past half dozen months, and to this list can now be added The Boy In The Bathroom, currently getting its World Premiere at The Chance Theater.

Though Urinetown’s Little Sally might wonder whether “The Boy In The Bathroom” is anything to call a musical, the title describes to a T what the show (with book and lyrics by Michael Lluberes and music and additional lyrics by Joe Maloney) is about, though it scarcely hints at its power and grace.

The titular “Boy” is in fact a 25-year-old Michigan grad student named David (Chris Klopatek), a young man who has spent the past year shut up inside his bathroom of his own volition. A combination of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and an all-consuming fear of the outside world have propelled David to lock the titular bathroom door, leaving his single mother Pam (Marina Coffee) on the outside, unable to do anything but prepare her son meals no thicker than half-an-inch high (in order to fit between floor and door), that and pass her son newspaper clippings, pages torn from books, and toilet paper under the door. (The latter she manages by threading sheets through the half-inch space, which David then winds onto an empty spool to be used both as intended and as writing paper for his graduation thesis.)

Just what has propelled David to stay shut away from the outside world is never made precisely clear, though he does seem to have a history of wanting the protection of tight spaces. (Fetal David stayed inside Mom three weeks past his due date, and a few years later little David hid inside an opened Christmas present box and refused to come out.) What we do know is that David and his mother have settled into a routine, Pam’s acquiescence to her son’s self-imposed imprisonment making her the proverbial enabler in their dysfunctional, codependent, yet undeniably loving relationship.

Then one day, Mom slips on the ice which any normal son would have shoveled away and breaks her hip. (In a particularly distressing sequence, David’s fears keep him trapped inside his hygienic cell even as his mother cries out repeatedly for his help.) Unable to do her usual obsessive cleaning and dusting, Pam hires Julie (Liz Holt) as temporary housekeeper while she undergoes physical therapy, and it should come as no surprise to musical theater romantics that once Julie and David have struck up a conversation, the love bug will bite them both with life-altering consequences.

Getting David to talk to a stranger proves no mean feat, however, and as frustrating as this is to Julie, for the audience it provides heartbreaking evidence of just how terrified David is of the outside world, Julie’s attempts at a simple getting-to-know-you chat propelling David into a nearly catatonic state.

The pretty young woman’s Knock-Knock jokes prove ultimately irresistible, though, and soon she and David are playing chess (each with their own board) and drinking beers through straws, David’s a custom-made concoction long enough to extend from beer bottle under door and into his mouth.

Meanwhile Mom complains about Julie’s poor housekeeping and continues to feed her loneliness (and avoirdupois) with binge eating that she bemoans in one of the evening’s most powerful songs “Full,” which she sings while quite literally filling her face with food.

There’s probably no question in anyone’s mind as to whether David will eventually open the door and step back into the world again (anything other than that would make for one downer of an ending), but this in no way lessens the edge-of-your-seat suspense in getting there. If ever there was a musical to get its audience invested in a happy (or at least optimistic) ending, The Boy In The Bathroom is that show.

It’s also a show that seems born to be a musical. Without songs, something would be missing. With them, the end result feels just right.

As book writer, Lluberes creates real people and has them speaking in believable dialog. Composer Maloney follows in the footsteps of Sondheim and LaChiusa, with irregular rhythms and unexpected (i.e. sometimes atonal) melodies which might not work in a bright-and-sunny Boy Meets Girl musical, but seem entirely appropriate here. Lluberes’ (and Maloney’s) lyrics are more conversational than poetic. (“I wish I could fit under the door, but I’m too fat to fit under the door.” “I like the games you play with me when my mother’s at physical therapy.”) In a more traditional musical, this might prove a tad clunky, but in this context, the style seems somehow fitting, and when Lluberes and Maloney set out to write a love song, the result (“Walking On The Moon”) is exquisite from start to finish.

Lluberes, who directed a rave-reviewed New York Musical Theatre Festival staging in 2007, has surrendered those reins to The Chance Theater’s artistic director Oanh Nguyen for its official World Premiere, and as anyone who knows Nguyen’s award-winning work can tell you, a better choice could not have been made. The director’s contributions here are similar to those he made to the non-musical The Rabbit Hole, keeping performances authentic and insuring as much visual variety as possible in a limited space.

UC Irvine MFA candidate Klopatek is simply wonderful as David, heartbreakingly vulnerable, scared, and valiant all at the same time, and he sings with strength and grace. Holt is equally memorable as Julie, tough as nails yet tender, her own feeling of being trapped in small-town Michigan allowing her to empathize with David’s predicament. Vocally, Holt performs Maloney’s melodies with power, purity, and just the right amount of vibrato. Coffee gives a funny, gutsy, and absolutely authentic performance as Pam, though one can’t help wondering how her songs would sound with a Broadway-caliber voice.

Music director Mike Wilkins provides impeccable piano accompaniment. Bradley Kaye’s bathroom set looks totally real, yet allows us to see through doors and walls. (Kudos to the three performers for making it seem that they cannot see through them.) Brian S. Shevelenko’s lighting design is a textbook example of how to add variety to a one-set production and emotional resonance to a show’s musical and dramatic moments. As always, Erika C. Miller’s costumes are perfect choices for her characters. Casey Long has created a subtle, effective sound design. Tanae Beyer is production stage manager, Kyle Cooper assistant director, and Courtny Greenough rehearsal stage manager.

If the Chance World Premiere is any indication, The Boy In The Bathroom has considerable life ahead of it, its budget-to-emotional-payoff ratio making it a terrific choice for intimate regional theaters. The writers might also consider an alternate version featuring a male love interest, a simple pronoun substitution that might make The Boy In The Bathroom irresistible to LGBT theaters like San Diego’s Diversionary and L.A.’s Celebration. As is, Orange and Los Angeles county musical theater lovers are in for an emotion-packed treat down at the Chance.

One thing is certain. You’ll never look the same way at a bathroom again.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. Through May 22.
–Steven Stanley
April 23, 2011
Photos: Doug Catillier, True Image Studio

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