“21 Chump Street” opens on an empty stage set with seven chairs, a desk and lamp to stage far right, and a seven-person band to stage far left. It’s a 15-minute musical directed by Ryan Dobrin ’18 and set in a vast, chaotic, and silly world full of death and suffering.
“21 Chump Street” was written by Wesleyan theater scion Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, based off of a 2011 “This American Life” story about a high school kid named Justin who fell in love with an undercover police officer. He set out on one of those madcap, high-and-low searches to get her some marijuana, and ended up getting arrested and having his whole future derailed. This event inspired the penning of “21 Chump Street,” which was performed at a “This American Life” live show.
There’s something kind of beautiful and magnificent about the play’s topic, which I don’t need to point out and seems quite silly at first glance. It’s therefore even more exciting that the musical itself is pervaded by a genuine goodheartedness and searching empathy buried within all the mawkishly endearing cleverness which is part and parcel with the conceit of the term “15-minute musical.” The musical is about martyring a boy. It articulates a sharp perspective on marijuana legislation while operating from a vigorously emotional and theatrical perspective.
In the midst of the recent “Hamilton” craze, Dobrin found a link to the script and immediately loved it. He had never directed before, and he decided this was the project he’d use to crash-course himself through the directing process. His chief collaborator was stage manager Natalie May ’18, who he met through last semester’s Sweeney Todd production, in which they both acted.
I chatted with both Dobrin and May on a couple of busted-up sofas in a green room underneath the ’92 Theater. The two clearly complement each other well as collaborators: Dobrin is energetic and impassioned, while May is calm and collected. Both were drawn to the play because of its combination of extreme brevity and intense emotion, which generates a gripping, pressure-cooker atmosphere, both onstage and off.This is both May and Dobrin’s first time taking on dominant, behind-the-scenes roles in a theater production.
Built into the show is the allure of bringing the work of a previous University theater phenom back to its roots. Of Miranda’s original script, May said, “I think it’s really neat to uncover someone’s little gems, to take this script that comes from a real life and then to make it our own.” Dobrin also pointed out that the first production of Miranda’s “In the Heights” first show was performed in the ’92 theater. “This is what Lin-Manuel Miranda comes from,” he exclaimed.
Dobrin and May’s goal was to create a show that looks and feels as if it were created with only as much time as was absolutely necessary. It was cast two and a half weeks ago, the first rehearsal taking place immediately after casting. Likewise, production was brief, fast paced, and intense, taking place over a couple weeks and requiring an incredible commitment from their actors, designers, costumers, and tech crew. Set designer Nicole Boyd ’18 recalls her fascination with how quickly and extraordinarily the piece came together.
“Because it was a pretty minimalist set, my role in the production was pretty limited, but I had the good fortune of going to a bunch of rehearsals and seeing the cast and everyone else involved put together this short but sweet production in such a limited time,” she said. “I’m very impressed with them, and they’re all my role models. And I want them to teach me the choreography.”
When you talk to Dobrin about the project, you notice his enthusiasm, how much he leans into the goals of taking this project and making it well-acted, sharp, and believable.
And what’s surprising is that it is. For the first five minutes or so of the show, the viewer is really only engaged on the surface — these are college students singing and dancing and performing various high school antics. But then the show hooks you. It works because there’s never any flinching from the emotional stakes, never any winking at the flamboyant nature of “musical” as medium. Like Dobrin himself, the show leans hard into its goals, and this earnestness of intent buoys the viewer along.
The show also moves so quickly that there’s no time to not be invested. The restricted space of 15 minutes presents an interesting conundrum–the problem of how to capture an audience, to keep them engaged so they walk away with something. It’s the question of how to cut deep in 15 minutes. The musical format operates on a heightened, emotional plane that universalizes Justin’s strife and generates a meaningful and compelling piece of art.
In short, “21 Chump Street” is excellent, because it succeeds in being exactly what it wants to be.