What is art if not a window into the time and place in which it was created? In the wake of yet another disappointing jobs report, it’s clear that the Great Recession lives, and thus will play a significant role in our culture for years to come. Whenever there’s a lull in the hiring market, young people are hit the hardest. Of course, the uneducated are first to find themselves unemployed, but in the age of the trillion dollar tax hike, there just isn’t a whole lot of hiring going on at any level.
Enter David Shapiro and Ben Shapiro, stage right. The father/son writing duo teamed up to bring us what could be the first Great Recession musical comedy. Reality Check premiered to a packed house at Los Angeles’s charming Odyssey Theater this May. A snapshot of what it’s like to be in your mid-twenties circa 2012, Reality Check raises questions and draws conclusions about where we are, how we got here, and what we need to do about it.
The main characters reflect stereotypes of twenty-somethings trying (and mostly failing) to get on their feet. Alex (Alex Robert Holmes) is the sensitive one, too emotional and artistic to exist in a professional setting which requires discipline and teamwork. Lindsay (Sarah Brandon) is the ice-queen, too good for everyone and oblivious to how she comes off to the world. Jimmy is the goofy buddy, deeply in love with Lindsay, but not manly enough to get himself out of the dreaded friend zone. Brittany (Samantha Rose Cardenas) is daddy’s princess, all grown-up; a member of seven fitness clubs, and without any sense of personal responsibility, she’s dug herself into serious debt and now it’s time to pay up. And finally, Edward (Justin Buller), the big-dumb-handsome jock whose life almost assuredly peaked at age 17; he still lives for the glory days which are drifting further away in the rearview mirror. The performances are stellar all around.
Like most young people these days, each member of the gang is in need of work. It’s time for them to cash their Reality Check. All former high school classmates, the five young adults turn to The Man (Peter Pergelides), who runs a temporary employment agency. The Man is more than just a head-hunter: he’s a therapist who uses a tough-love approach to help his new clients understand their character flaws, overcome them as best they can, and move them in the direction of becoming productive members of society. The Man is the linchpin to the story because it’s his ad hoc resume consulting therapy sessions that allow for each character to have an arc. Composer/lyricist David Shapiro deftly moves the plot along with catchy tune after catchy tune powered by sparkling, pointed lyrics. The signature number, “Let Go the Banana,” had my toes tapping for days afterward. A sample of the lyrics:
In the jungles of Africa
This is how they catch a monkey
It’s a method that’s worked for years
And it’s now become a habit
Take a jar with an opening
Slightly larger than a monkey’s hand
Put a banana inside the jar
And the monkey will soon grab it
He can’t see the reason
He can’t take his fist out
Now the hunters grab him
All because the monkey won’t
Let go the banana
He won’t let go the banana
You’ve got to know
For you to grow
You let go the banana
In just four verses, Shapiro is able to articulate an analogy that perfectly encapsulates the mental state of young people in the modern age. Twenty-something Americans have grown up on a steady diet of participation trophies, self-esteem textbooks, and “everyone is special.” Part of becoming an adult is learning that all of your dreams, unfortunately, won’t come true. No one gets what he or she wants all the time, and those who get their way most often have to work really, really hard to do so. Simply put, sometimes you must let go of the banana you can’t have and start fresh searching for one you can. Someone should put David Shapiro in charge of music in our public schools (though I’m not sure he’d take the gig).
Reality Check is a coming-of-age story timed perfectly for the Obama generation. Librettist Ben Shapiro shares, via his characters, his philosophy on how to make it in America: work hard at a job (even if it’s not your dream job), take responsibility for your own life, and keep your expectations reasonable. Yet, he relays these fundamental values to the audience with a light touch; the book is humorous and ironic without ever being smug about the challenges life presents all of us.
If only Hollywood would produce more stories like this one.