One sign of how engaged the opening-night audience was by “Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant”: At intermission, they felt free to hang out on stage while crew members moved scenery around them.
The show is that likable and approachable (though I suspect the crew would prefer that this particular form of stage-crashing didn’t become a habit). Keith Hovis’ songs are catchy and varied, with only a few wonky rhymes. His pop culture-aware script is extremely — sometimes outrageously — funny, buoyed by absurdist jokes along the lines of “I’m not built to be the voice of reason. I don’t have the calves for that.” The actors have exactly the right instincts to get the most out of their lightly sketched characters, going broad when there’s room, and also showing us that their characters’ foibles may be exaggerated, but they’re real.
Wide-eyed Frannie (Kelly Houlehan), stoner Liam (Ryan London Levin), boyish Travis (Zach Garcia) and scheming Val (Leslie Vincent) all are adultolescents who find themselves back in the titular Minnesota hometown they dreamed they’d escape. In conversation, they locate the start of their adulting problems in a middle school talent pageant where tragedy struck when Val was preparing to pass along her crown to one of a group of contenders that included both Frannie and Liam. So, for reasons best not examined too closely (weed, horniness), they decide to restage the pageant, with Travis hosting.
In the first act’s songs, the four lay out their woes. Here’s Frannie: “When you’re on a first-name basis with the plasma donation receptionist, who needs pride?” And Liam: “A video goes viral where you’re naked/Soon, the world knows your name.” The highlight may be Val’s reprise of her pageant-winning “Sugar High,” a double entendre-filled song that would have seemed borderline pornographic when an innocent 10-year-old did it but that ventures well past that line when a 30-year-old takes it on. You can probably intuit what a tricky balancing act “Sugar High” is but, in writing, directing and performance, it reveals what a sure command of tone “Jefferson Township” has: It can push the boundaries of taste but its characters remain relatable.
The second act consists of the pageant, which occasionally brings to mind the great “Waiting for Guffman.” Opening with oddly hostile choreography in a salute to America, it builds to a sidesplitting finale that gets grislier and more absurd the longer it plays out (gastrointestinal distress is part of the picture, as is something much worse). Here again, the piece and its performers calibrate perfectly: Everyone knows how ridiculous it is for “adults” to enact a middle school ritual but, having accepted that, they treat the pageant about as seriously as they possibly could.
Under Laura Leffler’s assured direction, “Jefferson Township” (which grew out of a Fringe Festival show) has a light touch, but one reason it’s so entertaining is that people who are 30 right now do face a less certain future than previous generations and that it could well be harder for them to achieve what their parents did. Not that you’ll spend much time pondering that during this entertaining show. You’ll be laughing too hard to think about much of anything.
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