“Love in Hate Nation”: a-bop-bob-a-loo-bop, it’s girls gone bad!

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The cast of Love in Hate Nation
The cast of "Love in Hate Nation"

The cast creates three-dimensional characters that draw the audience in

Two River Theatre brings us the world premiere of a lively fall musical, Joe Iconis’ Love in Hate Nation. Set in the early 1960s, with a score reminiscent of the late 1950s, the show is a goofy romp through the girls-in-prison dramas of the era with a snappy score by playwright Iconis. This is an all-out fun night at the theatre.

Full cast of "Love in Hate Nation" on stage.
“Love In Hate Nation” cast on stage at Two River Theatre

We are introduced to Susannah Son (Amina Faye), a black girl raised by white parents. She is being sent to the Nation, an institution for wayward girls run by Miss Asp (Lauren Marcus), a strict authoritarian who lives by—and forces the girls to abide by—the social mores of post-war America. Susannah meets the other inmates: one-eyed tough girl Judith (Tatiana Wechsler), nerdy, loopy Ya-Ya (Sydney Farley), goods scrounger Rat (Jasmine Forsberg), Southern belle Dorothy (Lana Skeele), trans girl Kitty (Emerson Mae Smith), and the unofficial leader, Sheila Nail (Kelly McIntyre), just released from a stay in solitary. An affection grows between Susannah and Sheila and is discovered by Miss Asp. When Sheila is returned to solitary prior to getting electro-shock treatments to “cure” her aberration, the other girls come up with an elaborate plan to protect her from therapy and free her from the Nation.

Director John Simpkins, along with choreographer Mayte Natalio, keeps the cast moving while keeping the emotions of this caged group at the boiling point. The cast, all talented singer/actors, create three-dimensional characters that draw the audience into the world of an early 1960’s girls reformatory. Outstanding work is done by the two leads, Amina Faye, as Susannah and Kelly McIntyre as Sheila, as their friendship believable, reluctantly grows into something deeper. Providing strong support in opposition is Lauren Marcus as the sweetly menacing Miss Asp.

The sharp seven-piece offstage band is led by vocal arranger/conductor/keyboardist Annastasia Victory. The ingenious jail set by Meredith Ries, enhanced by Isabella Byrd’s lighting designs and Palmer Hefferan’s sound designs, brings the oppressiveness of the Nation to full life, while Karen Perry’s costumes help the cast define their characters.

While I have nothing but praise for most of the elements of this show, I do have to express disappointment with the lyrics. I found them, pedestrian, rarely rising to the sharp turns of phrase or beauty of rhyme that mark some of the best lyrics. Also, especially in ensemble numbers, the lyrics sounded muddy, which could have been a problem with the singers or with the sound system. Because of this, I would classify Love in Hate Nation as a good show that just misses being a great show. However, I must admit that the other elements of the show made me mostly overlook my problems with the lyrics, and I found myself swept along by the combined talents of all concerned.

Jasmine Forsberg and Ryan Vona on stage for play "Love in Hate Nation"
“Love in Hate Nation” actors Jasmine Forsberg and Ryan Vona.

Love in Hate Nation is a lively, entertaining show, and I can recommend it while stopping short of classifying it as a must-see production. It would not be a waste of time to visit the young ladies (or as Miss Asp calls them, “garbage girls”) at Joe Iconis’ refreshing new musical, Love in Hate Nation.

Love in Hate Nation is presented by Two River Theatre at the Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank through December 1, 2019. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org.