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BROAD STREET REVIEW: Two River Theater presents Joe Iconis’ ‘Love in Hate Nation.’ How do you measure a new musical?

By Cameron Kelsall

Love in Hate Nation, a joyously original gem now on stage at Two River Theater, got me thinking about the ways to measure the merit of a new musical. Do the songs stick in your head long after you’ve left the theater? Does the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention throughout the show? Do you find your eyes welling up at the finale—partly because you’re moved, and partly because you don’t want the experience to end?

I see my share of new musicals—it’s an occupational hazard—and in a very lucky case, I might experience one of those sensations. I can count on one hand the number of shows in the last five years that have achieved all three. But this delightfully weird, insanely tuneful creation by Joe Iconis left me stretching for extra digits and searching for the right superlatives. And as I sit down to write this review, I find myself still humming no fewer than half-a-dozen of the score’s best ditties.

In short: Get your butt to Red Bank, reader, and allow these earworms to crawl into your brain, too.

Joe Iconis at Two River

Iconis and Two River Theater seem to have a copacetic relationship. Four years ago, they launched Be More Chill, which earned a crushing cult following that ultimately propelled it to Broadway. The original cast recording of that show has been streamed online more than 350 million times. There is no question that Iconis can craft a catchy tune.

Be More Chill, which is based on a popular young-adult novel by the late Ned Vizzini, came armed with a built-in fanbase. On its face, Love in Hate Nation—which was initially commissioned by the School of Theatre at Penn State—might look like a tougher sell. Iconis takes as his reference point the campy reform-school movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, where bad girls deemed too fast for society rotted away until their 18th birthdays. Cigarettes, plaid skirts, and flip hairdos abound, and Meredith Ries’s grey-walled set feels appropriately dungeon-like.

Susannah and Sheila

This is the world into which Susannah Son (Amina Faye) is thrust. A sensitive songwriter in the making, Susannah struggles with her identity and place in the world, taking drastic steps toward self-harm when the answers don’t seem right. At the National Reformatory for Girls—“Nation” for short—she finds herself under the watchful eye of Miss Asp (Lauren Marcus), a warden whose commitment to gracious living and femininity make her seem like Donna Reed on steroids, and whose snakelike name is no coincidence.

She also meets Sheila Nail (Kelly McIntyre), the kind of leather-jacketed, straight-from-central-casting tough girl your parents would tell you to cross the street to avoid. A friendship forms, followed by something a bit more complicated. The seeds of Iconis’s musical idea—half campy parody, half sincere journey to self-discovery—take root in this central relationship, which leads to full-on “revolution in the institution.”

The two central duets that Iconis supplies for Susannah and Sheila, “The Other One” and “Oh Well,” are among the catchiest show tunes I’ve encountered in an age, their composition styles brilliantly blending girl-group pastiche with a recognizable rock edge. They are also infused with a real theatrical sensibility, and they benefit greatly from the efforts of the two fantastic performers.

Faye and McIntrye

Faye is still an undergrad at Penn State, and if she’s this good now, I can only imagine how far she’ll climb in five years’ time. Her Susannah is vulnerable but resourceful, a girl shoved into a shitty situation who gradually finds her strength and resolve. She flaunts a massive voice that remains wonderfully on-pitch throughout its range, and she mercifully rejects the current vocal fashion of scooping and screlting her way to high notes. When her character is asked to approximate folk or doo-wop harmonies, she delivers them with a sovereign sense of period authenticity.

McIntyre brings an unsettlingly haunted quality to Sheila, a ward of the state whose complicated relationship to Nation is expressed in the thrilling narrative song “The Three Failed Escape Attempts of Sheila Nail.” Sheila’s budding attraction to Susannah allows McIntyre to chart the character’s growth from prototypical delinquent to soulful young woman. She and Faye have chemistry to spare, and her voice is just the right blend of rock-chick and Broadway belter.

This one’s a winner

Though Love in Hate Nation is stronger than nearly any new musical I’ve seen this year, it’s not perfect. With Susannah and Sheila’s story firmly at the center, the lives and backgrounds of the other Nation girls are sometimes given the short shrift. This is a shame, especially considering the fine ensemble on display in this production: Sydney Farley, Jasmine Forsberg, Lena Skeele, Emerson Mae Smith, and Tatiana Wechsler are uniformly excellent.

Miss Asp gets the best character writing in the show, and Marcus plays her part to the hilt. (She’s an ace at unsettling, off-kilter comedy.) Ryan Vona proves game in a host of male roles—from Susannah’s dubious jerk of a boyfriend to a shifty psychiatrist known as Dr. Shock—but the humor of this track relies a touch too heavily on stock.

Still, by all accountable measures, this one’s a winner. The current production benefits greatly from John Simpkins’s sharp directorial eye, catchy choreography by Mayte Natalio that riffs on familiar dances of the era, and a strongly unified aesthetic vision (costumes by Karen Perry, lighting by Isabella Byrd, hair and wigs by J. Jared Janas).

And that finale? No spoilers, of course. But rest assured that you’ll leave Hate Nation madly, deeply in love.