“I Gotta Memorize This Poem!” (Actual title of actual song.) Victoria Lahti

Of all the mediums in America, the musical may have made the least progress in the past 50 years—most "new musicals" are bizarrely retrograde. This is partly the fault of rock 'n' roll, which the Broadway brain trust thought of as a passing fad until it came along and yanked the rug out from under them. The for-profit arts model also bears some blame: Producers tend toward conservatism and commercialism, not risk. But most of the fault lies with the Broadway establishment—it's been a boneyard of the imagination for decades (Stephen Sondheim, as always, excluded).

The most popular new musicals, the ones people talk about wanting to see in other cities, have come from outsiders: the rocker Stew and his Passing Strange; the playful, experimental theater geeks of Les Freres Corbusier and their Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; rappers Jay-Z and Will Smith, who helped produce Fela!; the Canadian comedians, filmmakers, and TV stars who wrote The Drowsy Chaperone for a stag party, then expanded it for Toronto's fringe festival; and so on. The rest are mostly forgettable: oily adaptations of popular movies (Catch Me if You Can, Young Frankenstein, Shrek) or jukebox musicals that wind thin stories around familiar pop hits (Mama Mia!, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages).

What's a young musical lover with a modicum of imagination to do? Start his own company and produce the musicals he wants to see.

"Musicals get a bad rap," says Brandon Ivie, who founded Contemporary Classics—a young company devoted to new (and newish) musicals—as a high-school senior in Bellevue in 2003. "They're done so often and so poorly. The stuff I'm drawn to is the next step in musical theater."

Ivie began Contemporary Classics by hosting small cabarets at the late, lamented Thumper's (a defunct gay bar and grill on Capitol Hill where, according to its Yelp page, "all the dropouts from Betty Ford congregate"). Thumper's gave Ivie space, took the food and bar money, and let him keep the $10 door charge. Suddenly, Ivie says, "we had all this money and nothing to do with it."

At about the same time, Ivie and his friends were aging out of the summer youth-theater programs they loved, so they tuned up Contemporary Classics into a full-scale company with showcases for new songs and Seattle premieres, including Tim Acito's Zanna, Don't!, a glittery high-school fairy tale about a homonormative world where chess players are popular, jocks are outcasts, and heterosexuality is the love that dare not speak its name.

Ivie first worked on his current production, The Yellow Wood—by NYC's Michelle Elliott and Danny Larsenas part of the 2008 festival of new musicals at the Village Theatre in Issaquah. "Brian Yorkey directed it, and I was his associate," Ivie says. Yorkey got busy writing the book and lyrics for Next to Normal (a Broadway show about a manic-depressive woman that won the Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards) and encouraged Ivie to do something with The Yellow Wood.

The thing is, for a young company that aspires to "the next step in musical theater," The Yellow Wood is fairly standard. It has virtues: The actors are proficient, with strong, Broadway-clarion voices. The complex, pop-influenced music jumps from shades of Barry White to Suzanne Vega to rudimentary rap. And some of its lines are winners: "School spirit is just nationalism with pom-poms" and "You can be sexy—and by sexy, I mean normal."

But The Yellow Wood has the sincere, gee-whiz tone of not-so-contemporary musicals like, say, Godspell. It eschews the darkness, kinky wit, and self-awareness of new (actually new) musicals like Bloody Bloody and The Drowsy Chaperone, or even old Sondheim.

Adam (Daniel Berryman, owner and operator of one of the aforementioned clarion voices) is a high-school student with problems: He wants to go off his Ritalin, be more popular, hide the fact that he's half Korean, ditch his freshman little sister, and memorize Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" by seventh period ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...").

To nobody's surprise, The Yellow Wood is a learning-and-growing story: long live the road less taken, let your geek flag fly, etc. Adam ditches his Ritalin and has daydreams that overtake the stage like psychotic breaks. Characters from math-class story problems come to life, he meets Robert Frost in the hallway, and a long-dead Korean ancestor barges into his world-studies class to demand a traditional rice cake. She shrieks around the classroom like an Asian Harpy, almost a minstrel-show version of the Oriental Ancestor. "Bring me cake!" she howls. "Can't you hear my belly ache? I am finally now awake and I'm ready to partake! Bring me cake!"

This number perhaps comes closest to exciting and dangerous wit—it has shades of Young Jean Lee, the New York–based writer who plays with racial fire. (Her shows Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and The Shipment, about Asian and black stereotypes, respectively, have both toured to On the Boards.) But even "Bring Me Cake!" doesn't quite get there—and the potential humor in the title goes criminally untapped. A show about a conflicted half-Asian teenager titled The Yellow Wood? How can you ignore that? Especially when the white love interest (Sarah Davis, with megawatt smile) tells him during art class that his inner color isn't "industrial gray" or "institutional beige," as he claims, but that "you're a yellow, just like me" (!).

Elliott and Larsen, Yellow Wood's creators, have freshly minted graduate degrees from NYU's musical-theater program, which might partly explain the starchy tone. The academy, by and large, teaches students how to succeed in the status quo. While the actors and musicians are eminently competent (actor Evan Woltz does well as the rotund-and-outcast best friend, even though that cliché is as old as acne), the material isn't breaking any ground. The fundamental irony of The Yellow Wood is unintentional: It cheerleads for uniqueness and difference in a distressingly shopworn way.

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But don't give up hope for Ivie and Contemporary Classics. They're working on another world premiere called Over Seas, which Ivie describes as a "hiphop R&B chamber piece" for drums, piano, and cello about Filipinos. It came out of Showtune Suckapunch, a six-month writing program sponsored by Contemporary Classics in which two writer/director teams write the germ of a musical not based on a book, play, or film. Last summer's Suckapunch spawned Over Seas and Razia's Shadow, which has attracted the interest of famed East Coast artistic director Oskar Eustis.

With luck, those projects will help Contemporary Classics earn its name. recommended