Wanda's World

A new tween musical tackles middle school anxieties with personality and quirky humor

Arts Review

Wanda's World

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, through Feb. 22

Running time: 1 hr, 35 min

The new kid.

Is there any designation more gut-churning for a middle school student? Just at that time when you're feeling the most freakish

– body starting that awkward shift from child to adult, emotions surging into overdrive, classmates closing ranks into regimented cliques – and you desperately need the stability of friends and a familiar environment, you're thrust into a strange new world where you don't know the people, the rules of their social order, or if you'll fit in. You fear you'll be labeled a weirdo, laughed at, ostracized.

Now imagine you have a very prominent Port wine stain birthmark roughly the size of Rhode Island on your face and consider how that would amp those anxieties about being mocked and rejected to, say, the 10th power. That gives you a pretty good picture of the bundle of nerves that is Wanda Butternut on her first day at Cheese Valley Middle School and how she feels when her worst fears are realized, and she is ridiculed, hooted at, and tarred with the nickname "Blotches."

Of course, since this occurs in a musical for tweens, our heroine manages to work through her anxieties about her appearance – face up to her face, you could say – and win the respect of her peers, all to a batch of catchy tunes and peppy dances. Not to make this sound like Disney Junior High School Musical. Wanda's World may look the part, with its new-girl-in-school female lead, superstar jock male lead, stuck-up female who complicates their relationship, and two adult faculty members, but its similarities to that Mouse House blockbuster are, pardon the pun, skin deep. You won't find that finely buffed, corporate mass-appeal sheen in Beth Falcone's songs and Eric H. Weinberger's book. Their tale has a more personal feel, as seen in the source of Wanda's self-consciousness and the show's delightfully quirky sense of humor. (Would you believe the leads' big duet is a ballad about lactose intolerance?) The creators' keen feel for the casual cruelty of early adolescence, which goes hand in hand with kids' separation into status-craving cliques, also adds an edge to Wanda's plight. If you ever spent a minute in middle school, you feel her pain.

That's especially true when Annie Longley takes center stage in this production by the Showstoppers, Zach Theatre's youth troupe. The young actress projects a vulnerability that makes Wanda's distress feel genuine and immediate. She also radiates an intelligence and pluck that keep us rooting for her, and Longley's fellow performers make a lively pack for her to play off of, appealing even when they're being mean. (Longley alternates in the role of Wanda with Sarah Nichols.) All that personality, playfulness, and connection to the material is a credit to director Jaclyn Loewenstein and her production team, as well as Falcone, who came to Austin and led workshops on the show.

Wanda's World was originally produced off-Broadway with a cast of adult professionals, which would surely add polish to the performances, but it seems a poor trade-off for the authenticity that the young artists give to the show here. In playing characters their own ages, the Showstoppers don't just bring Weinberger and Falcone's musical close to home; they put it right at the kitchen table.

And when you couple that with a trio of suburban white tweens throwing down hip-hop (Matthew Moore is like a li'l Eminem), a Spanish teacher who's Irish but loves la vida Latina (Amy Nichols hilariously unleashing her inner Rita Moreno), and a tap-dancing cow (Ian Blake, giving new meaning to the term "hoofer"), well, as the show's superjock is fond of saying, what's not to like?

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Wanda's World, Zach Theatre, The Showstoppers, Beth Falcone, Eric H. Weinberger, Jaclyn Loewenstein, Matthew Moore, Amy Nichols

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