In an age where every movie that you haven’t thought about in a decade is being made into a musical, it’s refreshing and welcoming to see that artists are still willing to take risks on uncommon material. Lantern Theater Company’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon took such a chance on the “kids for cash” scandal. In Luzerne County, PA in the early 2000s, for-profit juvenile detention centers made deals with local judges to keep their houses (and the judges’ wallets) as full as possible. McMahon felt that musical theater was the best vehicle to deliver the emotional resonance required to drive such a story, and he enlisted local talents Kittson O’Neill (book and lyrics) and Robert Kaplowitz (music and lyrics) to make it happen. Minors runs through June 30th at the intimate St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts.
O’Neill and Kaplowitz explored different aspects of the subject, visited Luzerne County to absorb not only its geography and history, but its musical flavors as well. How does one tell this story? From the perspective of the judges? The townspeople? The press? They settled on the most vulnerable characters available: the children. Rather than present true stories, they invented four of their own, likely representations of the kinds of cases that may have occurred during this time.
None of the crimes represented in Minors would typically warrant anything more than a warning, but the judge (Paul L. Nolan) made it clear that he offered zero tolerance for any misdeed whatsoever, and the children were remanded to the custody of the “camp.” Minors spends several early scenes on exposition, testing the audience’s patience and attention span, but the pacing works. With each song, with each new character and subplot, O’Neill peels back the layers that will ultimately result in an unresolved yet satisfying denouement. One gets the idea that there was enough material for another hour’s worth of storytelling; there’s a scene towards the end where a key plot point is revealed in dialogue rather than action, but the alternative would have been onerous.
Another strategy that the writers used was that of an omniscient bystander. Sav Souza’s “Breaker Boy” opens the show as a 19th century miner (homophonic pun intended), drawing a constant and consistent parallel between using children for money then and using children for money now (“now” being about 10-15 years ago). Souza is ever-present throughout Minors, reminiscent of Che in Evita. They appear as a court clerk, a police officer, a fellow juvenile, sometimes at a distance and sometimes as a character’s conscience, but always as the “Breaker Boy.” Souza provides Minors with a coherent thru-line, a catalyst and an adhesive, and in that role they excel and are critical. The Breaker Boy wears the same dirty uniform and visage no matter the role, which allowed for the character to be fluid and grounded at the same time.
Kaplowitz’s songs circle around Americana roots-rock, but there are elements of various styles of music. Frankie Jr. (Mekhi Williams), who is into bikes and boards, gets a skater-punk tune. Amber’s (Grace Tarves) mother Eileen (Jennie Eisenhower) gets a folkier number. I picked out Fugazi-esque basslines and Greg Ginn-style guitar riffs. The only downside was that the well-trained voices of the adults didn’t quite match the music; it worked much better when the “minors” were singing their stories. The band, directed by Amanda Morton, consists only of guitar, bass, drums and sparse keys, and the minimal orchestration contributed to the authentic and contemporary feel of Minors. That’s not to say there aren’t intricate design touches. I noticed that a hazard light that Kelli (Terran Scott) stole was flashing in lockstep with the music; no easy feat. Characters sat in shadows for longer than one would expect them to, temporarily becoming one with the set. Matthew Decker directed the show as a whole, and as expected, he connects all of these elements in a way that makes it relatable and impactful.
Finally, Minors challenges the audience to recognize ways in which children are still used to do the bidding of those who seek to demean them. The Judge tells the children that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. You can see evidence of this today in how some adults reacted to survivors of the Parkland shooting speaking out against gun violence, or how vape companies target audiences who legally cannot buy their product with flavors like “bubblegum” and “gooey butter cake.” Lantern Theater Company’s Minors reminds us that children have a history of being disenfranchised, and they deserve to have a voice.
For tickets and more information, please visit https://www.lanterntheater.org/plays/minors-a-new-musical.html
Main image information: Jennie Eisenhower, Grace Tarves, Brady Fritz, Terran Scott, Marybeth Gorman, Ben Dibble, and Mehki Williams; Photo by Mark Garvin.