In South Hall, a Charleston Theatre Co. presentation at the Footlight Playhouse, writer, composer, and musical director Toby Singer hits all the right notes. Unfortunately, he hits a lot of wrong ones as well.
Singer knows how to write songs with strong hooks, complex melodies, and bittersweet harmonies. He knows how to structure a story so that the second half mirrors the first. And he knows that romantic leads benefit from strong supporting characters who reflect their best and weakest qualities.
Singer lovingly recreates the free-for-all atmosphere of college life, following the freshman year of naïve roommates David and Derek, David's girlfriends, and an assortment of colorful dorm nuts. David is a geeky virgin who falls in love with Julie; the charming Derek Long is disappointed that his homosexuality doesn't get a big reaction from his tolerant friends. Mallory lives with Julie and holds a torch for David. Mallory and Julie room with Lindsay, who's seeing a 43-year-old professor of poli-sci (her pet name for the guy is "Professor Pedophile").
Wee meet all these characters and many more in an exhausting series of songs and set pieces. In "Alma Mater," an a capella group sings a college song brimming with youthful enthusiasm. "Big Empty Room" is a tribute to the feelings of freedom and possibility that bubble up when college life begins. But a freewheeling life of sex, drugs, and mac 'n' cheese has its consequences, as the protagonists find out in the medical center (Regan Blum's marvelous "STD Song"), in the bedroom ("What's Her Name?"), and, ultimately, in a cemetery ("April Night Retrospective").
Eschewing straightforward melodrama, Singer lets the songs carry the show; dialogue is sparse and often functional. In a couple of scenes, it's obvious that the lines are there just to get the characters to the next plot point, making it difficult for the actors to perform them in a believable manner. For the most part, the clever numbers make up for any shortcomings in the script. But as David Katz, actor Brian Smith's performance is oddly uneven. Sometimes he's note-perfect, while at others he's all over the place.
Other actors are cursed with voices that are either too quiet or just hard to hear when they sing. As Derek, Patrick Melton becomes louder and more confident the further his character slips into alcoholism. In three roles, Tony Nappo gives a very entertaining performance but some of the lines he sings are lost. Cameron Ulmer's the most assured actress in the show, yet in a bizarre twist of casting, she's not on stage enough.
Songwriter and director David Frederick choose to cast lead character Julie Wilkins twice. In her freshman year, she's played by Alex Eichler. As a senior, she's Ulmer. In a production where the students are barely introduced to the audience and there are a lot of kids to keep track of, confusion is inevitable. Add to that a storyline that jumps back and forward in time, and you've got an audience too busy scratching their heads to do much applauding.
In his eagerness to create a world of shallow, socially awkward people, Singer succeeds too well. It's hard to care about students who profess love for each other but continue to screw around. South Hall takes a commendable look at casual sex and contemporary life — there's even a song devoted to Facebook. Refreshingly, for a production at the Footlight Playhouse, there are potty-mouthed pupils, a simulated blowjob, copious drugs, vomiting, and a slew of used condoms. Like the songs, however, the expletives and drug references lose impact because there are so many of them.
Smooth choreography, memorable images, and fun performances by Melton, Blum, and Meredith Kearns (as Mallory and Lindsay) all brighten up the show. It's a pity that some patchy performances, the cock-eyed casting of Julie, and a rushed ending make Hall seem more like a high school play than a graduation ceremony-sized hoorah.