ARTSMONDAY: ‘Ask Me Anything’ a Fun, Lighthearted Frosh Musical

In Annenberg, there’s always the one guy who eats well. While the rest of the freshman class cowers before the difficult choices—chicken vindaloo or Chickwich?—the one guy who eats well makes odd selections from the condiments at the salad bar, uses lots of soy milk, and starts slipping fives to dining hall workers in exchange for new ingredients. At the end of it all, he pulls a soufflé out of the microwave.

Sure, he’s a little too proud of himself, and he did set the toaster on fire once, but you’ve got to admire the combination of wide-eyed optimism and ruthless persistence. The 2007 Freshman Musical “Ask Me Anything,” produced by Tiffany M. Bradshaw ’10 and well directed by Heather E. Phipps ’10, was a little like the guy who eats well at Annenberg.

Which is to say, first of all, that it was impressive: a totally new musical with a book by Alexandra A. Petri ’10, music by Sam L. Linden ’10, and lyrics by Megan L. Amram ’10.

But more than just a new musical, “Ask Me Anything” was a good musical that consistently wedded witty turns of phrase to tight harmonies and a cute story. One shudders at the prospect of a brooding, self-styled future Sondheim in charge of something like this, and it’s a relief to see that “Ask Me Anything” was not going for anything it couldn’t handle.

What it did go for is pretty simple: Melanie (Julia A. Rudolf ’10) is a terrible newspaper advice columnist who wishes she were writing children’s books instead. Nick (Derek M. Flanzraich ’10), who works for the newspaper’s owner Fitzwilliam (Nelson T. Greaves ’10), is in love with Melanie.

Which brings us to the primary reason to see “Ask Me Anything.” As the unfeeling, self-involved Fitzwilliam (a guy who asks Nick to bring him a pillow stuffed with “crisp fifty dollar bills” on a whim), Greaves was magnificent, bringing a kind of grand narcissistic vision to a character who would otherwise be merely petty. He was the highlight of any scene in which he was onstage, including a long scene in which he did nothing but cry.

Fitzwilliam is dating Melanie, who is unhappy with their relationship—but not as unhappy with it as Nick, who is obviously smitten with her. Nick writes an anonymous letter to Melanie asking for advice on how to win a woman, and he receives predictably terrible advice. It’s when he takes that advice, befriending a mystic named Steve (Andrew M. Choi ’10), dressing as a ninja, and serenading Melanie in Italian, that “Ask Me Anything” really took off.

At least, most of the time. The show was filled with jokes, repeated jokes, diversionary jokes, and they worked about two-thirds of the time. Although Fitzwilliam’s jokes flew much more often than Steve’s did, a given joke’s success or failure did not necessarily depend on who delivered the punch line.

Combinations of character might be more accurate, as certain pairs or groups of characters had much more chemistry than others. Flanzraich’s Nick had difficulty being funny by himself, but he was a terrific listener, and a small change in his facial expression could turn one of Melanie’s ostensibly harmless remarks into a great moment. On the other hand, Choi’s Steve rarely modified his beatific gaze when other characters were speaking, which prevented him from contributing as much to scenes as other characters.

There were also two jokes about bad children’s books that seem to have been copied from internet lists about poorly thought-out children’s literature (there were about 16,900 Google hits for “Strangers Have the Best Candy,” one of the titles the script mentioned). I don’t know why this very creative cast and crew felt the need to use two stale jokes from a Web site, but it certainly detracted from the rest of the show.

That’s a pity, because the cast and crew otherwise consistently made the most of limited resources. Linden’s score recognized the fact that the singers’ voices, though strong, were not spectacular, and it accordingly leaned heavily on warm harmonies and stayed away from melodic bravado. Likewise, many jokes flopped on the first go-round, but took off when they reappeared a few minutes later, as though the cast was able to make a scene funny by sheer determination.

While it wasn’t going to bring you to your feet or take your breath away, “Ask Me Anything” was funny and well executed. Let’s hope the prefrosh saw it.

—Reviewer Richard S. Beck can be reached at rbeck@fas.harvard.edu.