A Theatre Near U’s “Guppy,” a comedy about the big man on a high school campus, is onstage at Fort Mason. (Courtesy Rob Wilen)

New musical ‘Guppy’ bravely swims upstream

A Theatre Near U performers show spirit

It’s clear that a huge amount of heart and soul was poured into “Guppy” by the people behind it. That does not result in equivalent levels of stagecraft on display at the Southside Theater in Fort Mason, but the show does have its bright spots.

The original musical is a project of A Theatre Near U, a film and theater arts academy “for the unusually dedicated and truly passionate artist,” and this cast of aspiring young performers enthusiastically lives that mission.

The true-life plot centers on Jeff “Guppy” Eben, star jock of the Clovis Cougars and big man on the high school campus, who — not really a spoiler — is left paralyzed “from the nipples down” after a waterskiing accident. (That particular line of demarcation inspires one of the funnier scenes.)

The score by Jeremy Erman, with book and lyrics Tony Kienitz, who also co-directed with producer Tanna Herr, is workmanlike. “My Life is Rad” sets the time and tone, comedy songs like that ode to male nipples and the production numbers “He Didn’t Crap the Bed” and “34 Days of Hell” are funny, and “I Won’t Hurt When I Heal” creates a poignant recurring theme. The drawbacks throughout the score are the too oft-repeated refrains, as if the lyrical well ran dry.

That also applies to the choreography by Cara Kienitz. The steps are initially energetic and era evocative, but quickly become stuck in repetitive moves and formations, like a lackluster cheer squad drill.

The academic underpinnings of the production call for a certain amount of grace in assessing performances and some company members definitely show more promise than others. Across the board, however, serious clean-up music rehearsals need to be called for pitch and tone.

In the title role, Jackson Wylder necessarily spends a lot of time immobile. He compensates, at least in his non-musical scenes, with a sweet performance that works through Guppy’s various losses with legitimate anger but without self-pitying indulgence.

As the adults in the room, Cindy Weisberg emanates pathos and cautious optimism as Guppy’s mother Sandra and Aaron Weisberg makes some very bold character choices as Coach Burkhard, Guppy’s motivation-driven teacher. (“How many wins have you had today?”)

Austin Nipper is wry and charming as rehab nurse Ralph (“It’s pronounced Rafe!”), quarterback-built but surprisingly nimble Sam Woodbury shows a flair for dude comedy, and Jonathan Liu, Madeline Schmid, and Enzo Sapojnikff each show real thesping promise.

“Guppy” is a work in progress — there’s a dream sequence and a plot development in Act 2 that feel piled on — but it’s worth further development.



Presented by A Theater Near U

Where: Southside Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd, S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 28

Tickets: $20 to $25

Contact: (415) 345-7575, www.fortmason.org

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