A Teenager Meets a Mysterious Friend at Rehab Camp in “Clean Slate”; Passage Theatre Partners with Rider to Present World Premiere Musical
“CLEAN SLATE”: Rider University and Passage Theatre presented “Clean Slate” March 10-12. Written by Kate Brennan and David Lee White, and directed by Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, the musical will be available to stream March 21-26. Above, rehabilitation camp participant Andi (Ellie Pearlman, left) meets Cassie (Rylee Carpenter) from another time — and the two discover that they share a crucial bond. (Photo by Pete Borg. Courtesy of Rider University)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre has partnered with Rider University to present a world premiere musical, Clean Slate. The book is by David Lee White; the music and lyrics are by Kate Brennan. Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues directs the production, which was staged at Rider University two weeks before its presentation at Passage.
A feisty, embittered thief, 17-year-old Andi (portrayed by Ellie Pearlman) is sent to a rehabilitation camp, Clean Slate, when her overwhelmed foster mothers Sarah (Miriam White) and Gina (Jessy Gruver) no longer know how to discipline her.
Andi is not the character’s real name. Like all participants at Clean Slate, she is assigned a nickname on arrival, to protect her privacy. Per camp tradition, the nicknames are based on Greek mythology.
At Clean Slate, Andi meets four other teenagers with difficult pasts. Leo (played by Avery Gallagher at the March 11 performance, filling in for Tiffany Beckford) is a would-be teacher’s pet who wants those around her to be as strong as she thinks she is, and she lets that make her into a bully; she has assaulted a dance class teammate.
The other camp participants include Iggy (Maclain Rhine), who set fire to his school, but has astounding knowledge about astronomy and mythology; the social media-obsessed Dion (Nicolle Duffy), who consumes and distributes drugs (her brownies have a secret ingredient); and the silent, enigmatic August (Ricky Cardenas).
The group is supervised by the affable but matter-of-fact, no-nonsense head counselor Herc (Kaedon Knight). Herc tells the campers that if their participation in the program is successful, their offenses in their records will be erased — hence the camp’s name. If they fail, however, they will be sent to a juvenile detention center.
This paradigm — a group of troubled characters whose actions result in forced participation in a program that is supervised by a well-meaning leader whom they find irritating and unrelatable — is somewhat reminiscent of a musical that Passage presented last year, Group!
But Group! tends to give equal weight to all of its program’s participants. Clean Slate interests us in all of the campers, but it also establishes Andi as its protagonist (until the epilogue, Sara and Gina are the only onstage family members).
Clean Slate also adds a supernatural component. When the some of the current participants consider trying to run away from the camp, disembodied, whispering voices warningly advise them, “Go to sleep.” Onstage with the current participants of Clean Slate are the Echoes (performed by Samantha Ringor, Carly Walton, Lane LaVonne, Nico Nazal, and Caroline Merten), the spirits of others who have participated in camps on the land.
Later, Andi meets and (reluctantly) befriends Cassie (Rylee Carpenter), who appears to be Andi’s age — but who camped on the property 17 years earlier. We learn that Cassie went missing when she was a camper at the harsh, ironically named Teen Recovery Academy. Andi and Cassie talk in secret at night; and Andi, under the cover of creating a story in a journal in which Clean Slate participants are required to write their thoughts, records Cassie’s oral autobiography.
This element — the intersection of past and present — echoes several stories seen in other media. American Horror Story: 1984 (2019) is set at a summer camp that reopens 14 years after a massacre; ghosts of past campers interact with living ones. Here, it is not conclusive that the slightly eerie, but benevolent spirits are ghosts of campers who have died — only that they are echoes from the past.
Bella Mazzoni’s set considers the large number of people who have passed through these woods; in imitation of foliage, plastic bottles hang above the stage. The forest has absorbed elements of humanity.
Domingues tends to demarcate past and present by placing the Echoes behind the current campers. As Andi and her fellow campers sing, the Echoes often dance to Alison Liney’s flowing, energetic choreography.
Costume Designer Robin I. Shane dresses the modern campers in rather vibrant colors — yellow plaid for Andi, red for August. The Echoes are outfitted in more subdued hues — such as gray and beige — that blend in with Todd Loyd’s lighting (which often immerses them in green). Cassie’s costume is an exception to the demarcation between past and present. Although her jacket is green, her shirt is bright pink. She belongs to the past with the Echoes in the forest, but her spirit is determined to break free of its own time, and connect with Andi.
Brennan’s attractive score is a mixture of uptempo pop-flavored songs (in which the restlessness is the point) and smooth ballads. The composer takes care to ensure that the high — youthful — energy is not allowed to dissipate when the mood becomes reflective. The music is enhanced by Josh Totora’s orchestrations, which favor expressive strings. The capable musical direction is by Louis Danowsky.
The show opens with a crucial six-note motif that leads into the mystic “Echoes Opera.” This is followed by the syncopated, ironically titled “Slow Down, in which the reluctant campers are dispatched to Clean Slate. “Cut ‘em Down,” a pithy, stylized production number for Herc and an ensemble of hostile adults, sounds like a playfully dark piece that Danny Elfman might write for a Tim Burton film.
It is revealed that Andi is Cassie’s daughter; Andi was taken by social services right before Cassie was sent to camp (their full nicknames are Cassiopeia and Andromeda). In “Lullaby,” we learn the significance of the opening notes: they comprise the melody of a song Cassie sang to Andi before the latter was taken away. This deft use of a motif binds the disparate pieces of the score into a cohesive whole.
As a lyricist, Brennan is at her best in character-defining numbers such as Leo’s “Get in Line”; and Cassie and Andi’s “Once in This World,” in which the two women share their life stories. Andi’s remark that she “stole and she stole, to assemble the pieces she lost” astutely encapsulates her story.
“Still Life,” a duet for Sarah and Gina, has a pretty melody, but the lyrics do not make it entirely clear (at least to this writer) how the foster mothers arrive at their decision to visit the camp. Conversational, rather than poetic, lyrics — that could give the two characters more distinct points of view — would help. On the other hand, the poetic lyrics to the “Lullaby” are effective in capturing the reunion of mother and daughter.
In staging the piece, Domingues is careful to keep physical space between Andi and Cassie, reflecting the time distance between them — so that it is significant when the two characters meet in the center of the stage, and touch one another. At a camp that aims to offer fresh starts, a mother and daughter are offered a cosmic second chance to bond.
The cast is a mixture of professional actors (Equity members Gruver and White) and Rider University students, most of whom are musical theater majors. The students have solid vocal talent. Gallagher gives the tough-talking Leo’s sweeping “Get in Line” all of the vocal power it requires, making the number a standout. Carpenter and Pearlman are particularly lovely in the brisk but poignant “Once in This World” and placid, haunting “Lullaby.” The ensemble’s voices blend nicely together, serving Brennan’s rich harmonies well.
As a librettist, White is skilled at writing a substantial script — with distinct, well-rounded characters — that nevertheless gives the music and lyrics the space they need to serve the story (not always an easy balance to achieve).
What could heighten the book’s effectiveness is if certain parts of the plot were developed, and not just presented (with the audience being asked to accept them at face value). An example is the epilogue, which is sweet but raises questions, particularly when the adult Cassie turns up. What happened to her after she disappeared from camp? Answering that question would offer rich story material.
It is a testament to the story, and engaging characters that Brennan and White have created, that there are several moments that feel as though they have potential for rich material that has not yet been tapped. It is exciting to wonder how the creative team will develop the show from here, and one hopes that Clean Slate, a show about second chances, will have many more chances to reach audiences.
“Clean Slate” will be available to stream from Passage Theatre March 21-26. For tickets and more information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.