As a reviewer, sometimes you feel unable to review a show because it is too far removed from your own life. For Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant (hereafter Jefferson Township), I experienced the exact opposite -- so much of this pulls from (what feels like) my own lived experience, that it is hard to review it with any objectivity--the basketball banners are the exact same ones with the same school colors as my hometown. Even though I did not grow up in Minnesota, the small town Americana vibe of this show will immediately resonate for anyone who came of age in a rural, one-stoplight kind of town. The places, people, and stories are completely recognizable and, while often comically caricatured, drawn lovingly. From the moment the full cast enters for a classic musical ode (singing in perfect Minnesotan), the audience settles in for a laugh-out-loud ride.
The small cast works very well together and their bond as a theatrical team indeed sparkles. Jefferson Township started as a Fringe show in 2017, and the full cast returns for this expanded show. Frannie Foster Wallace (Kelly Houlehan), Liam Ackermann (Ryan London Levin), Travis Hernandez (Zach Garcia) and Val Hutchinson (Leslie Vincent) all grew up in Jefferson Township. When Frannie’s financial situation forces her to move home, she reconnects with the three who didn’t leave. Travis stayed to run his family’s business and start a family, Liam became a store clerk, and Val capitalized on being the final (and thus current?) reigning champion of the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant. While clearly referencing iconic cultural touchstones such as Drop Dead Gorgeous and Clerks, Jefferson Township is considerably more sincere while being no less macabre.
In general, this musical feels a touch long (particularly in the first act) but that is in part because it is simply overflowing with songs. Playwright and composer Keith Hovis goes to great lengths to give each character a moment to shine, and shine they do. Leslie Vincent’s Val is self-obsessed, hyper, and more than a bit overbearing. Her rendition of “Sugar High” is certain to make your Lutheran grandma blush. Kelly Houlehan as Frannie and Zach Garcia as Travis have excellent chemistry, which comes to a dad-bod crescendo when he climbs through her window. To my mind Ryan London Levin’s burnout Liam elicits the perfect amount of sympathy, exasperation, and schadenfreude. Nowhere is this as evident as in his rendition of ‘Liam’s One Man Musical.” Decidedly Millenial in tone, the hijinks of the show are often juxtaposed with very real concerns (such as working jobs that do not provide healthcare) as well as ennui.
For those of us who miss small town living, the end provides a (perhaps overly) optimistic view on the ways that Millennials might be able to reintegrate into our hometowns. The fact that this cast keeps the audience engaged in the outcome of the Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant itself is a testament to their chemistry and the heart embedded in the piece.
The Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square comes pre-loaded with numerous challenges for the actors, choreographers, and set designers who work on it, and in this case scenic designer Ursula K. Bodwen and choreographer Antonia Perez’s work truly shines.The stage is divided into 4 quadrants with each quadrant dedicated to a particular character. This gives each character “home turf” while allowing audience members excellent sightlines. In numbers such as “Psychological Warfare,” the quadrants are activated and vibrant, giving the sense of a split screen and the “group line.”
Jefferson Township will keep you laughing and is completely appropriate for anyone over the age of 10. I would highly recommend seeing it with your friends and family! It runs until July 28th.