Theater review: Aurora musical sweet but superficial


“The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown”

Grade: B-

Through April 6. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays (excluding April 2); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. (April 2 only). $16-$35. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222,

Bottom line: Textbook teen angst, set to marginal music.

Like its plucky heroine, Aurora Theatre’s musical “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown” is at once genuinely cute and somewhat “ordinary” (to quote the girl herself).

Sam, as she’s affectionately known to friends and family, has reached a proverbial crossroads in her young life. Besides learning to drive and getting her license, she’s torn about whether to have first-time sex with her high-school sweetheart. In addition to weighing her college options, she struggles to find a sense of freedom and independence from her well-intentioned parents.

In her daydreams, Sam buckles up and hits the road with her best friend Kelly, zooming along back roads with liberated abandon, a teen version of Thelma and Louise from one of their favorite movies. Meanwhile, in reality, as we discover early on, Kelly happens to be recently deceased, a figment of Sam’s decidedly active imagination.

Even so, the show’s more serious inclinations don’t automatically make it any deeper. As written (by Kait Kerrigan), “Samantha Brown” covers a lot of familiar territory, going down a virtual checklist of generic coming-of-age issues. The script spells everything out — Sam frequently talks about “hanging by a thread,” about seizing control of her life and pushing her limits and creating her own destiny — without truly backing anything up.

And the songs (music by Brian Lowdermilk, lyrics by Kerrigan) are generally peppy but largely forgettable, functioning not so much as meaningful extensions of the story or the characters than as trifling fragments.

There are two notable exceptions late in director Justin Anderson’s slick Aurora staging (which runs about 100 minutes without intermission), under the music direction of Ann-Carol Pence (who leads a seven-member band).

Oddly enough, one of the most emotionally and musically resonant numbers (the lovely duet “I Wouldn’t Change Anything”) belongs to Wendy Melkonian and Chris Damiano as the comic-relief parents. In the other, Kylie Brown, who plays Sam, sings the hell out of an empowering anthem (“Remember This”) that closes the production with a considerable bang.

But these are stand-alone moments of clarity in a show that otherwise mainly skims the surface, an admittedly “tangled jumble of memories” (to quote Sam again). Accordingly, perhaps, Brown portrays the character’s perkiness more persuasively than her poignancy. Melkonian and Damiano are about as fine as you could hope for playing her cliched folks. Stephanie Friedman is suitably energetic as the spirited Kelly, and Jeremiah Parker Hobbs rounds out the cast as Sam’s affable boyfriend.

Anderson keeps things moving at a steady clip, relying on Mike Post’s sharp lighting or occasional video projections to indicate shifts in the story between the past and the present, between dreams and reality. Phil Male’s angled, abstract set design features a backdrop of seemingly suspended pieces of a Jenga game.

There’s an undeniable spark running through “Samantha Brown,” just not a substantial amount of real fire.