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STAGE REVIEW

Songsters sustain ‘Perfect Harmony’

Kelly McCreary (Meghan) and Clayton Apgar (Jasper) in “Perfect Harmony’’ at the Stoneham Theatre. Kelly McCreary (Meghan) and Clayton Apgar (Jasper) in “Perfect Harmony’’ at the Stoneham Theatre. (John Howrey)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 13, 2010

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In their different ways, “Glee,’’ “Dreamgirls,’’ and “American Idol’’ have all traded on our interest in the singer behind the song.

So we are dished up back stories galore. We might learn about the hardscrabble path the character (or contestant) has traveled, the private insecurities behind the smiling public face, the romances that ended with a broken heart but that, by golly, enable him or her to sing the lyrics of torch songs with passionate conviction.

Now comes “Perfect Harmony,’’ an erratic, sometimes cheesy, but generally likable comedy at Stoneham Theatre about the backstage machinations and personal turmoil among a group of highly competitive high-schoolers at a national a capella competition.

Originally conceived by Andrew Grosso, who directs this production, “Perfect Harmony’’ was developed in workshops involving a group of actors called “The Essentials.’’ It premiered four years ago at the New York International Fringe Festival, had a solid run on Theatre Row in 2008, and moves to off-Broadway next month.

“Perfect Harmony’’ presents a clash between the all-male Acafellas, who are 17-time national champions (“They inspired that TV show,’’ one character says early on, in an apparent reference to “Glee’’), and an underdog ensemble of female classmates called Ladies in Red (later changed to Lady Treble).

Both teams are even more revved up because this year MTV plans to broadcast the competition. But behind the scenes, inevitably, there is discord and, just as inevitably, across-enemy-lines romance.

The seemingly invincible Acafellas are threatened with the loss of their leader, Lassiter (Robbie Collier Sublett). Tired of the superficiality of a capella and inspired by Beethoven, Lassiter wants the Acafellas to “stop trying to sound so pretty’’ and to instead challenge the nationwide TV audience with “a big fat wad of honest musical truth’’ in the form of new, original songs and a hard-edged approach.

His compatriots — the stiffly aristocratic Philip (Kobi Libii), the silent Jasper (Clayton Apgar), the jock-ish JB (Jarid Faubel), and the nerdy Simon (David Barlow) — aren’t ready to take that step. So Lassiter walks away from the troupe. It gets worse: The Acafellas soon have another problem on their hands that threatens to disqualify them from the tournament altogether.

The girls, meanwhile, fear that their own chances for victory are hindered by the prissy leadership and staid taste of Melody (Dana Acheson). “We’re killing the audience softly with our non-rock songs,’’ one of them complains, to which the malaprop-prone Melody retorts: “We are not doing Def Shepherd!’’

This is especially frustrating for Meghan (Kelly McCreary), who is ready to bust loose (and who is also smitten with Jasper, Melody’s boyfriend). The girls’ group also includes the peppery, Balkans-born Michaela (Kate Morgan Chadwick); Kerri (Marie-France Arcilla), who has a Tourette syndrome-like propensity for explosively blurting random phrases mid-sentence; and Valerie (Faryl Amadeus), who is so pathologically shy she cannot bear to be looked at, unless it is Simon who is doing the looking.

The first act of “Perfect Harmony’’ is somewhat sluggish, but the show kicks into gear in the second act with the appearance of Kiki Tune, an entertainingly crass agent (played by Chadwick) who sees big possibilities in the hunky JB. Far less amusing is Goran, the spluttering brother of Michaela, played by Barlow (and even less amusing is a scene where Goran gropes one of the girls).

Like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’’ (now at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston), “Perfect Harmony’’ explores the world of quirky outsiders who find their identities through an idiosyncratic obsession and a high-stakes competition.

However, unlike “Spelling Bee,’’ with its original score by William Finn, the tunes of “Perfect Harmony’’ are a capella staples like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun’’ and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’’ In other words, they’re not the kind of soul-baring songs that will give us a deeper sense of the characters. (An exception is “Umbrella,’’ the Rihanna song, which provides the emotional underpinnings for a poignant reconciliation scene).

Overall, Grosso does not give the cast enough opportunities to showcase their singing skills, but when they get those opportunities, the results are impressive.

Particular standouts are Barlow, at least when he is playing the geeky quavering Simon; Arcilla, who as the misfit Kerri uncorks a powerful voice that seems to come out of nowhere; Faubel, who brings a good-hearted bonhomie to the role of JB; and McCreary, whose Meghan is ambitious yet touching.

“Perfect Harmony’’ plays some sour notes but, at its best, the show communicates what one character calls “the joy of being in the sound.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

PERFECT HARMONY Written by Andrew Grosso and The Essentials

Directed by Andrew Grosso

Sets, Nick Francone. Lights, Brian Jones. Costumes, Becky Lasky.

At: Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham, through Oct. 3. Tickets $44-$48. 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org.