By David Brush
Early in the 2003 film, School of Rock – Jack Black (masquerading as a substitute teacher at a prestigious elementary school) questions the school’s curriculum: “I’m talking about bands that rock! Led Zeppelin? Don’t tell me you guys have never gotten the “led” out? [sic] What do they teach in this place??” The competitors of Chelsea Marcantel’s Airness – now playing in a stunning premiere at The Human Race’s Loft Theatre – certainly share Dewey Finn’s affinity for all things rock ‘n’ roll. And much like that beloved film (and subsequent Broadway musical), Airness balances the comedy, the music, and the heart in endlessly surprising ways.
The script by prolific writer Chelsea Marcantel has achieved regional success all over the country of late and it is very clear why it has found such a broad audience. First premiering at Louisville’s illustrious Humana Festival of New Plays, Airness is at turns hilarious, charming, touching, and driving – the pace is perfection and the writing is concise. The story centers around Nina (the glorious Allison Kelly) entering an air guitar competition (yes, you heard that right – and yes, those are real things – Google it – it’s impressive) and finds herself in the songs while also discovering a community she never knew she needed. The play is ultimately less about the power of rock, than it is about the power we all have inside us to create and express if only we would tap into it. The return of live theatre after the Covid-hiatus makes this script somehow more prescient and surprisingly tender. But do not misunderstand – Airness is funny – and I mean truly funny.
Directed by Human Race resident artist Jamie Cordes (who most recently helmed the incredible rock musical Lizzie at The Loft) takes Marcantel’s pace and runs with it. Many less seasoned directors would have gotten in the way of the text, but Cordes allows the script and the cast to meld together into a piece that often feels like the perfect pairing of company and play. It is that rare fusion of right people – right script – right time – that makes for an exciting evening in the intimate seats of The Loft.
And then there is this extraordinary cast. Reanne Acasio (in a strong HRTC debut as “Cannibal Queen”); Rasell Holt (another impressive debut as “D Vicious”), Andrew Ian Adams (absolutely showstopping as “Golden Thunder”), James Roselli (whose costume surprises were a constant comedic highlight), Zack Steele (in a brilliant performance as “Shreddy Eddy” and a highlight of the evening – last seen at The Loft in the impressive production of Sweeney Todd). Drew Vidal (expertly balancing the comedy and the tenderness of “Facebender”), and Allison Kelly (whose incredible arc as “The Nina” is radiant). The group works as an ensemble comedy with plenty of shared spotlight. And the music? Well, all the greatest guitar riffs are here – and a fantastic tribute to Joan Jett that must be seen! Scenic Designer Dick Block’s versatile set, Sound Designer Jay Brunner’s busy and nuanced sound work, John Rensel’s lighting design and Janet G. Powell’s outrageous costume design work in a perfect marriage with Cordes’ vision. If you ever dreamed of having an axe to slay (or just one to grind), Airness awaits you. “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll”. So rock on, fellow dreamers. Rock on.
In additional news from the Human Race, two shows have been added to the season – the nostalgic comedy Incident At Our Lady Of Perpetual Help in April, while June will bring a collaboration with Arizona Theatre Company in the form of the new true musical, My 80-Year Old Boyfriend.
Tickets and performance information for “Airness” are available at www.humanracetheatre.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630. Performances continue through November 7. (Please refer to the Health and Safety policies on the website – including proof of vaccination – before attending.)
David Brush is a director, music director, vocal coach and librettist/lyricist. He received his M.A. in Theatre from Regent University and has assisted in the development of over 15 original musicals – two of which had successful Off-Broadway runs. David is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the host of musical theatre podcast The 10glo Show, teaches musical theatre voice and serves as an adjunct professor at many universities.