Last Night: Homegrown Kissless Rocks Out Houston Before Heading Off-Broadway

The setup: An ambitious new Houston-grown musical about teenage conflicts uses a cast of 27 to create a dynamic world where parents are distant and largely irrelevant, while the opinion of a peer can be crucial.

The execution: Teenage cliques formed around jocks and nerds are a theatrical tradition, but subcultures expand here with rednecks and goths, adding freshness to the exuberant goings-on. The storyline follows Derek West, leader of the jocks, played by Tyler Galindo, and Summer Stokeley, a Goth with less-than-full commitment to the genre, played by Teresa Zimmermann. Compelled by plot needs to look unhappy much of the time, she nonetheless involves us in her vulnerability.

Galindo as top-jock might have more snap, sparkle and swagger, and a bit less sincerity, but both have strong, attractive voices -- Zimmermann is a belter who fills the ample space -- and they work well together. Jordan McLaughlin and Mark Jammal play jocks with enthusiasm and verve, and McLaughlin especially nails some comic timing. Julia Green plays the leader of the Goths and is a standout in looks and performance. Identical twins Austin and Ryan Jacobs play a jock and a redneck -- both have strong voices and excel at using body language to good effect. Cameron Worthen plays Chet West, father and athletic coach, and is strong and effective. The mother, Betsy West, is played, as intended, by Megan Blackmon as a cartoon character for comic relief. Tyce Green is terrific as the psychiatrist and has a great voice, and Matt Buzonas is a winner as a redneck.

The stage erupted in electric life with "Soul Crusher," as video games were enacted with style and wit. I loved Zimmermann's powerful rendition of "l'm Gonna Make Him Cry" and admired the strength and sweep of Kissless. "My Son" is amusing and rich with comic irony. The songs emerge seamlessly from the plot, thanks to the multitalented Chance McClain, who wrote book, music and lyrics. This work-in-progress is on its way to a competition at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it will have three weeks of off-Broadway performances.

The verdict: Skilled professional performances from a richly talented young cast bring an ambitious project to vibrant, exciting theatrical life -- the audience couldn't wait to spring to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation.

Saturday September 17 at 3 p.m. and Sunday September 18 at 7 p.m., Houston Family Arts Center at the Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress Road, Cypress, 281-685-6374.

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