Set in 1999, Morning Reckoning tells the story of a group of 8th-grade girls who run a fan club for their favorite Boy Band, “Morning Reckoning.”
By Jessica Neu
Upon entering the New Hazlett Theater to enjoy local multidisciplinary artist Kelly Trumbull’s new play, I was immediately struck by the scenic design and props
(Tucker Topel). The fan club meetings occur in the club president Kandace’s (Alex Manalo) suburban New Jersey basement. The 1970s-80s plaid sofa was a basement standard during the 90s as it was banished to the basement when your parents got new living room furniture from Kaufmann’s. The couch was adorned with a patchwork crocheted afghan. A bean bag chair and the type of plastic folding chair you would stick to on a hot summer day provided additional seating options for the fan club members. Downstage were storage boxes marked as holiday decorations and the red and yellow Little Tykes “Fred Flintstone” pedal car. I had that exact car as a child, and its presence on stage made me a bit itchy as it was the source of my first bee sting when a hive set up in the back of the car. My grandfather got the stinger out with tweezers as I sat on a similar brown plaid couch positioned center stage—indeed, a nostalgic moment.
Written and directed by Trumbull, Morning Reckoning marks her writing debut and is sure to make you laugh and remember an era of dial-up internet, teen magazines, and teenage angst. The social media hype surrounding this show, The last show of New Hazlett’s Community Supported Art’s 10th season, was significantly greater than that of previous performances this season, translating into a nearly sold-out audience for opening night.
Trumbull’s script is peppered with clever popular culture references from that era, including nods to *NSYNC, Christina Aguilera, Carson Daily, “Austin Powers,” “Clueless” and “Scream.” These references help to ground the nostalgic element of the show as we follow Kandace and her friends April (Claire Sabatine), Sue (Jalina McClarin), Trish (Matia Martin), and Emily (Mia Kurlfink), as they hold annual fan club meetings to discuss important information about the band, prepare for their upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden (complete with plans for their mothers to wait in line at Ticket Master) and perfect the words and choreography to each Morning Reckoning song.
With music by Brad Stephenson and Addi Twigg and choreography by Manalo, audiences get the vibe that these girls are recreating what they just saw on Total Request Live back in the late 90s as fans flocked to Times Square each day to catch a glimpse of their favorite artists at the MTV studios.
However, if the singing and dancing are the personifications of teen pop, Trumbull’s angst-ridden script channels Alanis Morissette-esque 90s female rock. Straight from the pages of a diary purchased from the Charlotte Russe checkout line, the five principal actresses portray a sense of teenage excitement and drama as their meeting agendas address underlying social anxieties that plague young women. Topics of bullying, sexual orientation, parenting, and independence are all discussed from a teenager’s self-centered, stunted perspective. However, the topics still add depth to the plot as we, as adults, can become self-reflective on our once-teenage selves.
Trish’s parents will not allow her to take the train into Manhattan to attend the Morning Reckoning concert but instead offer to drop her off at Madison Square Garden and pick her up. Despite Trish still being allowed to go to the show, Kandace becomes infuriated that Trish cannot ride the train with the rest of the group, as the presence of Trish’s parents ruins the entire significance of the adventure. I remember so clearly my dad waiting for me outside of Star Lake and IC Light amphitheater, but wow, did I feel grown-up when I started riding with my older friends who had their licenses to see shows a Club Laga and Metropool.
These characters are relatable, witty, and heartwarming. Kandace continues to fight for control over the group as Nadia (Julia Kreutzer), a transfer student from Indianapolis, is invited by Trish to join the fan club. Kandace rejects anyone new to the group citing that Nadia is not a big enough fan as she continues to bully the other members into adhering to her self-contrived fan club agenda. Her need for control could resonate from the absentee mother whom Kandace references throughout the show but also alludes to a far more significant challenge that many teenagers face: the struggle to reconcile one’s identity. Kandace becomes so entrenched in her love for Morning Reckoning, specifically member Brandon Brixton, that she has a quasi-nervous breakdown when it is reported that he attempted suicide and that all subsequent concerts are canceled. Lashing out at her friends, who she feels are not mourning the events properly, Kandace admits that she eventually thought the stars would align and she and Brandon would end together. Of course, adults can view that statement as teenage fantasy, but I challenge any female to think back to when you did not have some hope that you would end up with your teenage celebrity crush (mine was Taylor Hanson).
Morning Reckoning brings to light that before individuals became consumed by identity politics, there was identity pop culture. When each of the Spice Girls and *NSYNC assumed a different persona that fans could identify with, we became these members, or at the very least, assumed we knew them. As Kandace realizes that all she knows about Brandon are the preferences he listed in a teen magazine interview, she is left with the stark reality that she not only does not know Brandon but also does not know herself, which is quite a heavy realization to reckon with.
Morning Reckoning opened on the same day the Backstreet Boys celebrated their 30th anniversary as a group. To this day, fans still flock to see their favorite teen icons, from New Kids on the Block to the Jonas Brothers. What was once our entire identity is now the nostalgia we seek to escape the turmoil of our current identity politics; “isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?” Morning Reckoning connects us to that nostalgic time faster than any dial-up connection ever could and reinvigorates the thrill, innocence, and excitement that comes with seeing your favorite celebrities and spending time with your best friends.
New Hazlett Theater Community Supported Art’s (CSA) production of Morning Reckoning has it’s last performance on April 21, 2023, tickets at https://newhazletttheater.org/csa/