Quiz bowls are a staple to many smarty-pants during their high school days. Competing and showing off your intelligence in order to win a trophy seems like a logical idea for a musical. Like an ode to the award winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Academia Nuts brings the zany characters of the quiz bowl circuit to musical form as two teams fight in the El Chupacabra Champion-Chip.
Academia Nuts follows the tales of the ethnically diverse team from Walla Walla lead by Sergeant Tina Van Wyck as they take on the homeschooled Southern McCutter clan lead by overbearing mom Chrystal. With the legendary Melvin Jessup as the El Chupacabra Champion-Chip moderator, insanity ensues as both teams will stop at nothing to win. With a book and lyrics by Becca Anderson and Dan Marshall and music by Julian Blackmore, Academia Nuts is nonstop fun and comedy with great hope. Anderson and Marshall’s book is filled with play on words. From the sponsor of the quiz bowl to the Walla Walla Walruses to the slogan for El Chupacabra to the correct pronunciation of the McCutter clan, Anderson and Marshall find the funny. The best line in the entire show is the genius Evita reference Chrystal drops. There are many references to pop culture that get big laughs from the audience, but there are some that are a bit outdated. Tyler, the former athlete with big dreams on the Walla Walla Walruses, idolizes Brett Favre. While it’s a bit contrived for the Washington kid to like the star of Green Bay, Brett Favre may not stand the test of time for future productions. With such a pivotal plot point, Favre just isn’t as legendary as other athletes. The musical is all fun and realistic for the majority of the show until it takes some bizarre turns in act two. From a gender swap to the coming of the rapture, the musical comedy strays away from everything it had built up to. When it comes to the stereotypes that the students are, there are many references to the geek culture. However, the more stereotypical quiz bowl crowd are made up of nerds, which is not necessarily interchangeable with geeks. The culmination of the entire show is a toe tapping smash called “I Speak Geek.” Even if you accept the geeks in this world, there isn’t quite enough of a build up to earn the song. Certain characters embrace their inner geek, but the rest of the ensemble seems out of place, desiring more of a buildup throughout the show. The majority of the characters have a clear and defined arc except for Mary McCutter who is only serves as a devise for her brother.
Director Thomas Caruso highlights the comedy with great ease. With the vibrant yet simple set by James J. Fenton, Caruso’s ingenious basic staging and placard use keeps the action moving and laughs at full volume. Ryan Kasprazak’s choreography is entertaining, using the podiums to full capability.
Academia Nuts is almost the full package. There is definitely a future with its bawdy brand of comedy but may always feel like a derivative. No matter where the next step leads, Jennifer Simard needs to be a part of it.