Geeks, dorks, the invention of email, and a 2005 rock album. That’s the unlikely combination of ingredients that form the basis of Loserville, the new rock musical currently playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. On paper, it looks like it could be deadly. It isn’t. Actually, it’s always entertaining and sometimes wonderful. This is the rock musical equivalent of a labrador puppy – wide-eyed, full of energy, and out to have fun.
It’s based on a rock album, but it’s not really a jukebox musical (thank God). Songwriter James Bourne and his collaborator Elliot Davis started with a 2005 album called Welcome to Loserville by Bourne’s post-Busted band Son of Dork, but they haven’t simply constructed a show around the album’s ten tracks. Instead, they’ve jettisoned half the album, taken five songs that strongly suggested characters or dramatic situations, and used those songs as the starting-point for an original musical (the five songs from the album that are used in the show are considerably transformed from their original recordings).
The result is yet another rock musical set in an American high school. Yes, from Grease to Glee to High School Musical, we’ve been here before; the twist, here, is that Loserville is told mostly from the point of view of computer geeks and sci-fi nerds. It’s 1971, and Michael Dork, a teenage computer hacker/programmer (think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) is on the brink of inventing email, but wealthy jock Eddie, the son of the CEO of a computer company, is out to steal his idea. Can Michael win the race to send the first-ever email, and win the heart of Holly, a fellow computer geek who wants to be the first female astronaut? It’s not giving anything at all away to say that yes, he can, because you’re more or less always two steps ahead of the plot. That, though, is almost beside the point.
The thing is, this very slim story is delivered with such energy and charm that any failings in the writing – and there are some – are ultimately curiously irrelevant. Bourne’s songs (which are co-written with Davis and a number of other collaborators) sound nothing at all like the pop music of 1971, but they’re fresh, sharp and tuneful (you will come out of the theatre humming ‘Ticket Outta Loserville’), and they manage the very difficult trick of transforming authentic contemporary rock music into something genuinely theatrical. Davis’s book is fast-paced, funny, commendably economical (each act runs about fifty minutes), and sprinkled with sci-fi/pop culture allusions (many Star Trek references, an extended and suitably over-the-top scene set at a fan convention, and one character – named Lucas – is writing a book that will clearly become a very well-known film franchise. Hint: it’s set in space, and he’s beginning his story with chapter four). The characters in Loserville are all stereotypes, true, but when they’re drawn this colourfully, who cares? The show never takes itself too seriously (although it stops short of being an out-and-out spoof), and in Steven Dexter’s production it’s so exuberant that you can’t help being carried along for the ride. The cast (of 20) and the tight, appropriately loud five-piece band deliver pitch-perfect performances, to the point where it’s unfair to single any individual out for special praise. These actors – all of them – have singing voices with character – there’s no glossy, robotic Lea Michele-style belting here, and thanks to Simon Baker’s impeccably clear sound design you can hear all the lyrics, which is depressingly unusual at rock musicals these days. Nick Winston’s hilariously dorky choreography is so energetic that I think I lost five pounds just watching it, and the show is presented on a marvellously inventive set by Francis O’Connor that mixes early-70s futuristic backdrops (flashing LEDs, printed circuits, spinning data tapes) with outsize educational supplies (notebooks and pencils used to suggest everything from doors and windows to bowling pins) to tremendous comic effect. In a planetarium scene in the first act (lighting by Howard Harrison), it’s even beautiful.
It’s not quite perfect. The character arc for Holly could use a little sharpening, and there’s the occasional maladroit lyric or one-liner that doesn’t quite land. What’s required, though, is judicious tweaking rather than a major rewrite: the show is almost there, and it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining. It certainly deserves a wider audience and a life beyond Leeds.
And, dammit, I want a cast album!