‘Stupid Humans’ is elegant and touching
Alexander Daugherty | Monday, March 4, 2019
“Listen to your heart.” This phrase is, at least on the surface, the message of junior Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans’ new musical, “Stupid Humans.” Though this is generally a tired and eye-roll-worthy aphorism, Rivera-Herrans’s musical takes the message quite literally. “Have you ever tried freestyling to a heartbeat?” protagonist Indigo asks during an open-heart surgery he was assisting on in what was a truly elegant opening. However, what follows Indigo’s departure from medical school and his first foray into the new world of music and tribulation in Los Angeles is mostly unsurprising. Following the plot was of no consequence because the audience was consistently at least one step ahead of Indy himself. This was also the case of most dialogic interactions, which were intermittently brilliant but lacked the same sense of newness one experienced in the music. This tendency to two-dimensionality aside, “Stupid Humans” was at once touching and inspiring.
Starting in the opening scene, Rivera-Herrans’ striking use of language was clear. The sonic architecture of this scene was accentuated by the very real scenario depicted and the equally real consequences hinged on the operation. Rivera-Herrans reveals his supreme talent for vocal acrobatics as well as lyrical rap writing itself. Indeed, each performer’s vocal skill was apparent and the ensemble was quite strong. The strength of these moments points to strong direction and an aesthetic sense consistent with the music itself. Rivera-Herrans’ use of his ensemble as a theatrical device rang of both “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” at times, as did some of his music. In some cases, there were musical phrases that seemed entirely borrowed from these keystone musicals, although at least slightly repurposed. Though his rap was catching fire in the audience, there was not the same reaction to his lyrics which, like his dialogue, seemed — and this specification must be stressed — mostly reliant on platitudes and basic end rhyme. When this pattern was broken and the stars of strong music, stunning voices and driving dialogue aligned, the impact was nearly cosmic.
Even in such a strong cast, standout performances could easily be identified from Rachel Thomas as Jacky and Samuel Jackson II as John, Jacky’s dad. Thomas’ grasp of her character and her stakes in the action were quite clear. Though it was ostensibly Indigo’s story, the musical felt much more in tune with what became Jacky’s journey. Ultimately, hers was the most compelling, developed and fresh narrative presented. But what would Jacky be without John? Jackson took on his roles as father and imaginary talking pig with equal panache and command of his own physical and emotional expressions. Though he says to Jacky during a particularly difficult social interaction for her, “I’m you,” John’s individuality was clear. He was both comedic relief for the tragic parent-child events of the overarching narrative and an audience darling, a position established by his love of Jacky and biting sass almost immediately.
At the end of the show, the lights come up and Rivera-Herrans waxes autobiographical, rapping to the audience of his show as a demand of personal expression, integrity and an idealistic casting out for dreams. That moment, and every flash of musical genius before that, found the audience bobbing to the beat, words dancing on their lips and desperate to sing along. People were smiling uncontrollably, crying at the loss, growth and reconciliation staged before them. It is a musical with a soundtrack that would, if it were available, undoubtedly be hummed across campus for some time to come. While “Stupid Humans” certainly did not say anything substantially new, its cast and performance were stunning and its characters are nothing short of relatable, broken people doing their best “in the heat of the heat of the moment.”