Photos by Greg Mooney

Alliance Theatre is presenting the world premiere of the musical “Becoming Nancy,” directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, with a book by Elliot Davis, music by George Stiles, and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. All of these people are Broadway heavy hitters. The show is based on the novel by Terry Ronald (it was a best seller in England in 2011) and runs through Oct. 6.

In 1979 in a working-class suburb of London we find David Starr (Zachary Sayle) a high school senior; he’s a very likable lad, a musical theatre/pop music nerd, whose bedroom walls feature posters of Debbie Harry (Blondie), ABBA, Sting, and Kate Bush. Occasionally these posters come to life and talk to him; sometimes he feels they are the only people who truly listen and understand him. This clever device is funny and works very well.

Meanwhile, at his school (it’s not some swanky private school; dismiss that idea), the drama teacher Mr. McClarnon (Stephen Ashfield) is set to produce the musical “Oliver!” and needs a Nancy, the leading female part (remember the great ballad “As Long As He Needs Me”?). As no girl has the vocal chops for the part, the teacher casts David in the role; he sings very well. Of course he’ll have to wear a dress.

Mr. McClarnon seems blithely oblivious that this casting could be problematic for David, who is gay. And the school is no bastion of liberal thought; however, David does have some loyal friends, especially Francis (Jasmine Rogers), who is black; and most surprisingly, Maxie Boswell (Jake Boyd), the football captain. He plays Bill Sykes, and is as handsome, studly, and confident as all get-out. David is instantly smitten with him.

But as you know, true love is seldom smooth sailing. David’s mother (Sally Ann Triplett) and especially his aunt (Jessica Vosk) are generally sympathetic to his playing Nancy. Not so with the dad (Matt Hetherington): “He’ll be a laughing stock. Why couldn’t he be Fagin or somebody?”

But the chief plot surprise here is that handsome Maxie starts to return David’s affection; Maxie may be sexually fluid or gay himself; these terms, happily, are meaning less and less these days to many people. But Maxie and David are not terribly discrete, and they are caught sharing a quick kiss.

Word spreads. Dad blows a gasket; still worse, there are some serious school bullies around, led by Lancaster (Caleb Jensen) and “Squirrel” (Seth Clayton). They are not only homophobic, but also racist and even display neo-Nazi emblems. This is serious stuff. What started out as Judy and Mickey (“Let’s put on a show!”) quickly darkens dangerously. This is not a show for children.

So how in the world is this situation going to resolve itself? You’ll have to see for yourself. High schools, you know, can be tough and mean; some young people are scarred for life. Some play-doctoring may be necessary to smooth out the unsettling juxtaposition of musical theatre romance and ugly political baiting. This will probably happen if the show aims for Broadway; as you know, the Alliance has sent several shows to the Big Apple.

On a brighter note, we have a stage full of attractive, highly trained singers and dancers, and they work very hard for you. I’m tempted to tell you that things sort of work out for David, Maxie, and most of the others. I think I just did. I particularly like the final song, “You Matter.” (I’d tell you the names of more songs, but the program doesn’t list them.) The audience, by the way, was close to ecstatic.

David Rockwell’s scenic design is terrific; so are the lighting design (Philip S. Rosenberg) and sound (John Shivers) and costumes (Amy Clark). John Clancy’s orchestrations are top-notch. The songs are quite lovely; are they as memorable as those in the original “Oliver!”? Well, I would say it’s much too soon to tell, no?

The leading players (everyone I mentioned), particular Mr. Sayle, Mr. Boyd, Ms. Vosk, Mr. Hetherington, Ms. Triplett, and Ms. Rogers (“My Skin”) are outstanding singers and actors. They will thrill you. When “Becoming Nancy” soars, it easily overrides any moments of uncertainty. This is a life-positive show (“You Matter”); remember that and root for David and Maxie.

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