Valuable lessons


The Bully


Book by David L. Williams

Music and Lyrics by John Gregor

Directed and Choreographed by Troy Miller

Musical Direction by Jad Bernardo & Gayla Morgan

Vital Theatre Company (

The McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, 4th Floor

Non union (through October 1, 2008)

Reviewed by Judd Hollander


While many school bullies rule through fear and intimidation, all too often they are just as insecure as the people they terrorize, as explained in Vital Children's Theatre's very enjoyable new musical The Bully.

Lenny (Scott Lilly) is your typical grade school nerd. He's slim and wiry, wears glasses, speaks in a whiny voice, is an ace at such brainy subjects as math and history and approaches all physical sports with terror. In fact, his most hated class of the week is gym. Not only because of the various tasks he has to undertake (the latest being trying to climb a rope suspended from the ceiling), but also because he has to endure the taunts of the school bully -- a tall, somewhat brawny kid named Steve (William DeMeritt). Steve, who is a whiz at all things physical, seems to have made it his personal mission in life to torment Lenny mercilessly. Steve is helped in this effort by his various friends (i.e. hangers-on) who gleefully tease Lenny at Steve's urging.


Things take a sudden turn one day when Lenny and Steve accidentally get on the wrong school bus and find themselves going to a part of the city they've never seen before. Finally the bus driver (Kyle Minshew, who plays all the adult roles in the production) drops the two boys off at the Weltbottom School, a foreboding and unfamiliar structure. Once inside the building, Steve and Lenny discovery this particular learning institution is ruled with an iron hand by Meg (Diane Zelenka), a rather mean grade-schooler with an air of superiority and condescension, not to motion being an expert in karate -- all of which enable her to keep the rest of the student body in line. Pretty soon Meg has Lenny doing all the homework for her and her friends, while Steve is carrying everybody's school books wherever he goes. In order to escape, Lenny and Steve have to put aside their differences and work together so they can get back home.


While the major theme of the musical is pretty straightforward (don't be a bully), there are many deeper messages underneath. Chief of which is just how insecure grade school kids can be. While it's Lenny who's the butt of everyone's jokes, many of the students torment him because "when we make fun of Lenny, no one' s looking at me," as sung in the opening number. This pattern is also prevalent at the Weltbottom School, where Steve and Lenny are able to stir doubts in the minds of Meg's posse, making them unsure about where they stand in her eyes, to the point they turn against each other in a desperate attempt to keep their status as friends of the popular girl. The play also shows how important being popular is to some kids, such as when Meg insults one of her classmates and, instead of being annoyed at Meg, the student in question is just happy that Meg spoke to her -- the idea being that she was noticed by Meg and may someday be invited to join the popular girl's crowd.


Another important point explored is that everyone can be a bully without even realizing it. Although Steve's treatment of Lenny is obvious from the beginning, Lenny is not entirely blameless in the matter. It seems Lenny often humiliated Steve in class when the latter didn't know the answer to a question or took too long to respond to the teacher. This in turn made Steve angry enough to strike back at Lenny the only way he knew how. It's only when the two are really forced to talk to each other that Lenny realizes his role in creating the tension between Steve and himself.


All of this information (and a lot more besides) is nicely packed into this multi-song, 55-minute work. David Williams has written a strong and intelligent book, and one which never talks down to the audience. The music by John Gregor is very enjoyable and the lyrics (also by Gregor), while weak at times, work quite well. Credit also has to go to Troy Miller, whose able direction keep the action moving nicely, as well as his coming up with some very enjoyable choreography for the musical numbers.


Also important is that all of the actors in the story who portray students are quite believable. DeMeritt makes an excellent Steve, a guy who walks the walk and talks the talk of a bully, but once in Meg's territory and away from his comfort zone, he gets a large lesson in humility. It's also interesting to watch him come up with ways to outwit Meg; being a bully himself, he knows her weaknesses well.


Lilly is very believable as Lenny, an intelligent kid who takes refuge in his "smartness," without ever realizing his effect on people. His lament about gym class ("gym is pure evil") is a hoot and his general awkwardness make him easily understandable to others who have also felt like outsiders in a school environment. He's also wise enough to realize his own errors in judgment when they're pointed out to him.


Zelenka is wonderful as Meg, the terror of her grade school. This is a kid smarmy enough to have the various teachers wrapped around her little finger, menacing enough to have her classmates jump when she issues orders, and confident enough to expect her commands to be instantly obeyed. Her anthem "Meg's World Now" is one of the highlights of the show. Yet, like Steve, Meg has the problem of all bullies - she doesn't have any real friends.


The only real problem in the production is that DeMeritt's singing voice is weak and often off-key. He works well enough in group numbers, but when doing solo pieces, which happens quite often, his voice is simply not up to the task, thus somewhat lessening the effect of these scenes.


The set by Mary Hamrick is very good. Costumes (uncredited in the program) and lighting (by Christina Watanabe) work well.


Also in the cast are Stephen Stocking, John Magalhaes, Monique Beasley and George E. Salazar.


The Bully is a nicely conceived production - and one which can be enjoyed by both children and their parents.


Box Score:


Book: 2

Music/Lyrics: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 1

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander


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