'Between the Lines' review — Jodi Picoult's novel makes for a surprising and celebratory musical

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    Date:
    July 11, 2022
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    We’ve all heard the time-worn remark about leaving a show humming the scenery. After the final note of Between the Lines, a new musical about 17-year-old Delilah who escapes into books (in more ways than one), you’re bound to exit buzzing about the projections.

    These show-stealing visual effects ingeniously depict what’s happening in a children’s fairytale also titled Between the Lines. Actors stand in for the illustrations on pages of the book thanks to stage magic and strategic lighting. It makes for surprising and delicious eye candy.

    Based on the 2012 young adult novel by the mother-and-daughter writing duo Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, there’s more to like about the show. That includes the top-notch company deftly assembled and guided by director Jeff Calhoun. Most of the actors play more than one role as the plot moves back and forth between two worlds.

    In one of them downcast Delilah (an outstanding Arielle Jacobs) yearns to rewrite reality. In the wake of her parents’ divorce, she’s dealing with her overburdened, under-attentive single mom (Julia Murney), student bullies, and odd-lot teachers and counselors.

    In the storybook universe Oliver (Jake David Smith), a prince with deep dimples and tight tights, chases a royal destiny that’s been written for him that he’d like to edit. Delilah, who’s fascinated with Between the Lines even if it’s for kids, thinks he’s “hot.”

    Really? Turned on by an actual illustrated man? It gets weirder. Delilah discovers that when the book is open she and Ollie can talk to each other. A mutual attraction emerges, and complications ensue as she finds herself drawn into the book. Is it all in a lonely teen’s head — or is it real? You decide.

    Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson's songs are easy to like, and Jacobs shines in various solos. Some of the best numbers belong to secondary and peripheral characters, including one in which mermaids Marina (Jerusha Cavazos), Ondine (Wren Rivera), and Kyrie (Vicki Lewis) deliver a wave of feminist-fueled straight talk.

    Another keeper is “Inner Thoughts.” It slyly gets inside the minds of Delilah’s nemesis, Allie (Hillary Fisher), who considers the burden of being a high school queen bee; Allie’s pal Janice (Jarusha Cavazos), who muses about a same-sex crush; and teen techie Martin (Sean Stack), who reveals he’s hacked into about the principal’s email. Meanwhile, Allie’s dopey boyfriend Ryan (Will Burton) is as empty-headed as he appears.

    Timothy McDonald’s script could use tightening in act one, but it’s also peppered with spicy one-liners. “If Allie was on fire, and I had a glass of water, I’d drink it,” zings Delilah’s almost-friend Jules (Rivera). Another finds the fairy tale Queen Maureen (Murney) and her Lady in Waiting (Lewis) trading insults. “Spinster.” “Wench.” “Lush.” The royal gets the last word with a withering, “Supporting character.”

    For all of the show’s charms and pleasures, there’s a nagging haze of familiarity hanging over it. Characters and situations conjure up everything from Mean Girls and Dear Evan Hansen to Matilda and Into the Woods.

    Beyond the derivative echoes, the production shines. In addition to Caite Hevner’s cheer-worthy projections, Tobin Ost’s book-lined set features secret doors and compartments that transform before your eyes into rooftops and upright pianos. Gregg Barnes’s vibrant fairytale costumes pop like gems in a jewelry box.

    Likely to appeal to young audiences, Between the Lines ultimately is a celebration of the surprising and even game-changing payoffs of reading. That’s a message that hits the right note.

    Between the Lines is at the Tony Kiser Theater through October 2. Get tickets to Between the Lines on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Jake David Smith and Arielle Jacobs in Between The Lines. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)