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NKU’s YES Festival Opens With The Short But Dramatic Life Of James Dean

Review by Kevin Reynolds of
“Fast Young Beautiful”: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University kicked off its 19th Biennial YES Festival on Wednesday evening with a production of Ethan Warren’s latest, “Fast Young Beautiful.” The YES (Year End Series) Festival spotlights new plays and new playwrights and exposes their work to NKU students and theatre lovers. Mike King, professor of performance at NKU and co-organizer of the festival, told the opening night audience that this is the longest running festival of its type in the US and that 301 plays were submitted for consideration. Two were chosen, plus a third rarity, a play written by a junior BFA candidate at NKU, Isaiah Reeves.

Rachel Kazee (left) and Charles Adams in “Fast Young Beautiful”

“Fast Young Beautiful” is performed in the large, spacious Corbett Theatre on campus, and tells the story of actor James Dean (the only character that has a full name, though the others, as you will see, aren’t hard to identify), his relationship (friendship is too strong a word) with a young actor named Dennis, and their experiences on and off the sets of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”

The year is 1955, and Dennis, portrayed by sophomore Charles Adams, is seeking his cinema fame and gets signed quickly to Warner Bros. and assigned a small part in “Rebel Without a Cause.” He strikes up a tempestuous relationship with young (very young) Natalie. While James Dean is the titular star with the prerequisite brooding, drinking, and disdain for authority, I found the Dennis-Natalie relationship to be the real heart of the play. Two very young, but desperate for fame, actors traversing the studio system, lecherous directors, and in search of their acting chops and place in the world.

Dennis is at once goofy, charming, obstinate, angry, and rueful and we watch him learn and grow. Charlie Adams brings him to life and shares those human frailties, while junior Rachel Kazee embraces Natalie’s desire for stardom, her submission to authority, and a real hurt when she feels betrayed by Dennis.

Credit to junior Landis Helwig for taking on such an iconic personality as James Dean. His legend is so strong that it’s hard to replicate faithfully, but Helwig did an admirable job.

Most of the other cast plays two parts, one in each act as they focus on the two different films. Of particular note is junior Alexander Slade who portrays the two directors, Nick and Stevens. While Nick could be portrayed with just a bit more creep for his relationship with the young Natalie, he really embodies the meticulous, no-nonsense Stevens. This is a man with a successful career, a well-deserved reputation, and his own tried-and-true ways of doing things. When Dennis and James Dean defy him and mock his work filming the atrocities of WWII, he gives an impassioned and personal lesson to the two “kids” who have disrupted his set. It is a life-changing moment for both, and later Stevens shows a more human side when he could have easily walked away.

A brief word about the five Figments – ostensibly the Greek Chorus of this play. While they serve a purpose providing transitions, setting the time of the happenings, comic relief, even portraying James Dean’s car, the choreographed dance numbers seemed out of place and distracting, and they often spoke in unison which made comprehension a little tricky. And this rings true for others in the cast. As I mentioned, the Corbett stage is large and there is no backdrop – it’s open to the back wall and the set, by Rob Kirby, is sparse – two ramps with scaffolding about midway on the stage. While I applaud eschewing microphones, more projection is needed from many, especially in those quiet moments, or when background music is playing, or when acting far upstage. I wish the set and more action happened closer to the audience in order to capture all the emotions and nuances.

Director Nicole Perrone kept the pace brisk and was supported nicely by the lighting design of Aaron Burns. “Fast Young Beautiful” runs through April 14 as party of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit https://www.NKU.edu/academics/sota/events/theatre.html