“Don’t Stop Me,” an original musical by Berkeley’s Youth Musical Theater Company, or YMTC, is a charming portrayal of high schoolers and the pressures they face. While absurd at times, the magical storyline provides an appropriate backdrop to deliver messages about the challenges today’s teenagers confront.
“The plays I usually write are pretty fantastical,” said playwright Krista Knight. The premise of the show — a high school dance marathon that is overseen by a demonic, time-traveling DJ — precisely fits that description.
The story plays out in a high school gym, and the set includes bleachers, basketball court markings on the floor and, perhaps most accurately, characters hiding flasks under their brightly colored dresses. We are introduced to many high school tropes early on, including hypercompetitive twin siblings, a misunderstood bad boy, a socially awkward smart girl and codependent best friends.
While all the characters are pitted against one another in hopes of winning the dance marathon, storylines about their struggles for success, power and popularity are the play’s true focus. Indeed, as the play’s program explains, “a dance marathon, is a metaphor for the intense pressure (the YMTC actors) feel to achieve, to not fall behind, to persevere.”
This pressure to overachieve, familiar to so many, is parodied throughout the performance. Characters can be seen handing one another Ritalin in secret in order to stay up through the dance marathon, and partnering with one another based only on what will improve their chances at winning. In one song, the cast sings about the pressure of attending the best high school, reaching the best college, getting the best job and, in a dramatic closing number, achieving the “best death.”
The hypercompetitive twins, Ellie and Zander, deliver a beautiful rendition of “Northern Star,” a song about motivating — and depending on — one another in the way that only siblings can. It is clear from the beginning that these two will win the dance competition, but in a twist characteristic of Knight’s writing style, the demonic DJ kills them after their first performance.
The rest of the show follows in an increasingly supernatural manner, as the demonic DJ picks off partners one by one, making it clear that only one couple will be left alive by the end of the dance marathon.
In this way, the competition itself draws upon the theme of the pressure to be the best — only, in this case, being the best means being the last left alive.
This is a tactic that, while fantastical, is grounded in reality: For teenagers, every decision can feel like a matter of life or death. “Don’t Stop Me” deftly plays on this notion and, by dramatizing it, acknowledges how absurd that pressure is.
Many of the actors — who range in age from high school freshmen to college sophomores — play roles that mirror the struggles they might be facing in their own lives, from young high schoolers first experimenting with substances in the song “Subtle” to a couple deciding whether they will have sex or break up in “Square Dance/Showdown.” After speaking with Knight, it became clear that the similarities were intentional.
“Some of these people, they have created that fictional human being,” Knight said about the role each actor played in creating the characters. “(The kids) were a really big influence every step of the way.”
When writing the script, Knight, along with composer Dave Malloy, wanted to take into account exactly what the actors themselves felt about high school, growing up and the pressures that today’s teenagers encounter. It is this thoughtful consideration of the real, lived experiences of teenagers that makes “Don’t Stop Me” so successful.
“YMTC is about the voices of young artists,” Knight explained.
In “Don’t Stop Me,” these voices ring loud and true.
“Don’t Stop Me” is playing until July 26 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.
Contact Sofia Raimondi at [email protected].