Giant corporations have always had a raging lust for the youth market. Mega-businesses like 'em tender and innocent, so they can instill brand loyalties that will generate profits for decades. And there's no better doorway into the minds of kids than through their music. The corporations' music, that is, since so much of what passes for genuine youth-oriented musical artistry is either manipulated beforehand or co-opted after the fact.
This is the insightful premise behind Bliss, an original hip-hop satire written and performed by participants in the Student Theatre Enrichment Program (STEP). The program, implemented by Cleveland Public Theatre, is a yearlong academic enrichment and job-training effort for at-risk youth ages 14 to 20. After a year of writing, revising, and rehearsing, they've finally hit the CPT stage with a production that is hip, energetic, and laugh-out-loud funny in places. Sure, it isn't polished, but there's some real talent on display, and that's gotta be worth the ridiculously reasonable three-buck admission price.
After a slow and somewhat awkward opening, Bliss takes us inside the offices of Omni, the all-powerful corporation of the future (meaning about two minutes from now), where the cynical Daryl and conflicted Veronica (Danielle Edelman) are plotting to create the next hot rap group. Daryl (played with infectious sleaziness by Chris Rock look-alike Quinton Perry) reminds his cohort that the band needn't be real, it "just has to look authentic." So they find four unlikely teenagers and turn them into the corporation's idea of what the pubescent public wants: a law-abiding suburban kid (Courtney Hill) is morphed into the career criminal Ex-Con, a devout Chicago girl (RaQuel Robinson) becomes sexy Miss Bling, and a sex-fixated homey (Troy Congress) turns into the weepy, soulful Baby Boy. Also, in a blast of satiric inspiration Terry Southern would have loved, a white southern gal (Amanda Clark) is transformed into a dashiki-clad, militant Caucasian Nubian Vegetarian with a dieting jones. Other cast members who ably take on multiple roles include Owen A. Marroquin, Theresa M. Mills, and Mequel Moultrie.
Each member of the new band, dubbed "Diversity," is taught how to dress and behave onstage by the flaming talent coach Bobby Bobby (comical Jerome Fuller in full, flouncing-fairy mode). Each singer is also assigned an Omni product to push and is hooked on a short leash, until the corporation earns back the money it has invested. Of course, their first song goes double platinum, and all seems cool, until the kids start to realize how they've been duped. Co-directors Raymond Bobgan and Chris Seibert keep the pace rolling (often literally, on casters) and the jokes sharp.
While some of the young performers occasionally allow enthusiasm to overwhelm enunciation, the company as a whole is to be saluted for creating a viable and entertaining theatrical work. And hats off to Cleveland Public Theatre and producer Jeffery Allen for supporting both the STEP program and this rewarding production.