In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Smith Huber and Madison Penzkover share a moment together in "Stargirl" (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

"Stargirl" shines spectacularly bright in First Stage production

Where do you go if you are new and you know who you are as a person, but nobody else seems to get you?

And because they don't get you, the path to being part of the whole thing is made that much tougher out of jealousy, ignorance and an unwillingness to just find out.

That's the question in the courageous staging of "Stargirl," the adaption of the novel by Jerry Spinelli that opened over the weekend at First Stage under the brilliant direction of John Maclay.

The story is about Susan Julia Caraway who has changed her name to Stargirl. She is new to school and brings with her newness a kookiness that leaves everyone just about breathless. She dresses in costumes ranging from Pippi Longstocking to a geisha girl to Daisy Mae. She seems to be smarter than just about everyone at the high school. She carries a pet rat named Cinnamon in her backpack.

She can't tell the difference between first down, and a first down and she plays old time folk songs on a ukulele.

Like all good stories, this one takes a turn when girl meets boy, and boy and girl take tentative, hesitant steps toward each other and toward a heartbreak we know is coming sometime.

Stargirl's beau is the semi-nerdy Leo Borlock, king of the video club at school and young man with the willingness and ability to see something before him that others are missing. And it ends up that love is what he sees and what Stargirl welcomes with open arms.

It's her acceptance into the school, or at least a girl not so alone anymore.

There is hardly anyone in this town that can do this kind of message play as well as First Stage. It would be easy to soft-pedal a story about 16-year-olds wondering when they should make out and then seeing this relationship turn into full fledged love.

But Maclay is no milquetoast, and he lets the story rip along with the joys and heartbreaks of being 16 on full display, accompanied by the social media whirlwind that drops "pings" around our heads on a continual basis all day and all night long.

The technological side of this production is a wonder to behold, designed by Martin McClendon, lit by Nick Belley and with sound by Lucas Clopton. But the young actors in the MOA cast are where this story takes wing and flies.

Madison Penzkover is Stargirl and, she plays it straight as an arrow. This is a character who could easily become a caricature, but Penzkover brings and surprising maturity and humanity to this girl who isn't willing to give up on who she is just to be one of "them."

Smith Huber plays Leo with a shag of hair, the shyness of a boy wondering about a girl and a sense of honor that is compelling. When it was Leo's moment to shine, Huber was right there with nary a misstep.

The rest of the young cast – Esther O'Brien, William Esty and Seth Horne – all captured the variety of spirits that inhabit the halls at any middle America high school. And First Stage favorite Richard Ganoung, one of my favorite actors, provided the kind of adult presence and balance that kept this from being "90210" or "Mean Girls" or something like that.

There is some pain in this play. Stargirl is caught between how much to give up of herself and how much she gives to other people, notably Leo. It's a struggle that is hard to watch, and I found my heart going out to this girl who wants so badly but is unsure of what it is exactly that she does want.

First Stage does this kind of play as well as anyone. There is a message here, but nobody beats you over the head with it. Instead it's a quiet foray into a teenage world fraught with highs and lows, ups and downs and tears and laughter.

It's just what a great production should be.

"Stargirl" runs through Feb. 15 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.


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