Innovative, surreal musical impresses
When a friend told me she planned to attend to a workshop production of “Max Understood,” I impulsively decided to tag along, not knowing what to expect. I’ve seen theater productions before, but most were mainstream musicals like “Wicked” and “Les Misérables.” A quick Google search an hour before the show turned up the description “surreal musical,” and I knew this production would be vastly different from what I’m accustomed to seeing on stage.
I attended a reading of the play, not a full-scale production. Actors read from a script in front of them, a narrator read their actions, and musical numbers were scaled back.
Despite the performance’s austere production, it did not disappoint, with standout acting performances expertly tackling the serious issues of child autism through an imaginative and innovative script.
Directed by Charlie Otte, written by Nancy Carlin and composed by Rasbury, “Max Understood” is an invitation into the life of 7-year-old Max and the challenges his parents face in communicating both with their autistic child and with each other.
When Max wanders out of the house, he meets Homunculus “Munc” Jones, a leaf-blowing philosopher who takes him on a mystical adventure around the neighborhood. The show soon transforms into a dreamlike sequence, as each teenager Max meets is re-imagined to represent his fixations on Pegasus, mermaids and U.S. presidents.
A key element of the musical is its use of synthetic sounds rather than live instruments. The show opens with a cacophony of loud, jarring sounds — an alarm clock, a leaf-blower and car horns — which allows the audience to sympathize with Max’s distress. Max’s toy recording of the U.S. presidents also functions as a major musical component of the show, leading to the show’s most entertaining number, a rap about the heads of Mount Rushmore (“Rushed Up”).
Despite the music’s unconventionality, the production did not feature many show-stopping songs. Instead, the strength of the play emerged through its acting and dialogue. The script featured repetitive and fragmented conversations meant to illustrate Max’s distracted and disconnected train of thought.
Max was the undeniable showstopper of the performance. Played by child actor Chris Kelly, Max was inspired by Rasbury’s own autistic son. From his mannerisms to line delivery, Kelly shines in the role.
As a camp counselor, I struggle to get 8-year-olds to stand in a straight line, let alone convincingly read the role of an autistic child. But Kelly embodies the part with humanity and courage.
“Max Understood” is unlike any theater production I’ve seen, but it finds true strength in its novelty, blending innovative music and storylines to create a musical that begs to be understood.