By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Aurora Theatre is currently presenting the Atlanta premiere of the musical “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown,” running through April 6.

With a libretto by Kait Kerrigan and music by Brian Lowdermilk, the show has a “sung through” feel to it, although there is certainly spoken dialogue.  Perhaps that’s because it’s only a fast 90 minutes with almost 20 songs.  The play centers on Samantha—Sam—(Kylie Brown), a high school senior whose life, ostensibly, is rosy.  She’s pretty, has her pick of prestigious colleges, an attentive boyfriend (Jeremiah Parker Hobbs), and two supportive parents (Wendy Melkonian and Chris Damiano).

She also has a charming best friend named Kelly (Stephanie Friedman), already in college, who lends her unwavering support and encouragement to Sam in everything from learning how to drive to her imminent adventures in college.

However:  “I can’t remember what it feels like to want something!”  This simple statement by Sam is not the statement of a happy young woman who ought to be on top of the world.

Something is wrong.  There is a discontent, a disconnect with Sam which I can’t say much about without revealing a central secret, if you will, of the evening.

“Are you ready to drive?”  This is asked of Sam, literally and figuratively; a car sits in the middle of Phil Male’s inventive, raked set, and Sam is often in it, sometimes learning to drive and sometimes just chatting with Kelly.

But the question becomes metaphorical:  “What do you want to do with your life?” is really what’s being asked, sometimes by her statistics-minded dad, sometimes by her doting mom.  Both are what teachers call “helicopter parents,” though both would instantly deny it.

The driving/life metaphor rather quickly becomes obvious and a bit overused; in fact, the entire play has a work-in-progress feel to it, which even the creative and dexterous direction of Justin Anderson cannot fully remedy.  The play’s the thing, as Shakespeare said.  Yet it becomes more compelling, as the secret I can’t tell you about is revealed; and Brian Lowdermilk’s music is often lovely, and gets even better as the evening progresses.

“Sam Brown’s” heroes are its actors.  This is a fine cast, full of charm and talent and winsome vulnerability, particularly Ms. Brown, Ms. Friedman, and Mr. Hobbs.  Ms. Brown’s Sam is full of yearning and is ultimately heartbreaking.  Ms. Friedman is sparkling and magnetic.  These two young women have a wonderful chemistry, they both sing beautifully (I love their duets!), and you want them to be best pals forever.

Jeremiah Parker Hobbs is fast becoming the go-to guy in Atlanta theatre when a genuine sweetness of spirit and comic talent is called for.  His subtle, moving “Run Away With Me” is a high point; yes, he sings, too.

All this is not to ignore the complete professionalism of Wendy Melkonian’s Mom and Chris Damiano’s Dad.  They are both fine and funny.  But this is really a coming of age play, and one’s primary focus is the young folks.

I have an old friend who likes to say she loves performance; and that, my friends, is why you should see “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown”:  the performances.

For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.                      

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.