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'Diary of a Simpy Kid' has us saying 'zoo-wee mama'

Natasha Marshall, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, played the lead role in "Diary of a Simpy Kid," a musical created entirely by Rutgers students. – Photo by Emma McMillan (@emmarosephotoss)

According to the playbill that was handed out to the audience, the idea of "Diary of a Simpy Kid" started as a joke by its creators Michael Trujillo, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Anthony Graceffo, a sophomore in Mason Gross School of the Arts. But as inside jokes go, this one snowballed into something much more real. And what started as a joke became a masterpiece.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from a "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" parody musical. I had heard it would be raunchier than the original source material and that the songs were good, so I went in excited to see their work produced on stage.

The musical was held in the Cabaret Theater on the Douglass Campus which is a small, intimate space that only served to enhance the experience. The set was wonderfully crafted with walls that looked like lined paper, reminiscent of the book pages themselves, and with hand-drawn family and class portraits that looked like the book's original characters as decorations.

Then the house lights went out, and Greg Heffley appeared on stage with his mother by his side. Concerned about his well-being, she decided it would be good for him to write his feelings in a diary — or a journal, as Greg strongly prefers we call it.

From the opening number, "Dear Diary," it was clear that Greg would be an unreliable, Holden Caulfield-like narrator. He would tell the story from his warped and overly positive opinion of himself that he’s sure everyone shares. 

During the first few songs, the audience was introduced to the show's cast which included Greg’s friends, classmates and family (including his somewhat disturbing younger brother, Manny, played by a puppet that the family passed around during the performance).

Throughout the first act, I was keeping an eye out for any standout cast members, but it became a difficult task as I found I had circled the majority of the cast list by the end of the show. The cast was incredibly strong together, giving incredible vocal performances in solos and in harmony as a group. I’ve seen a lot of shows at Rutgers, and while many of them were great, I’ve never seen a cast work so well as a unit before.

"Rodrick's Lament" was one of my favorite numbers. It was a song that I felt showed sides of Rodrick that we don’t even see in film adaptations of the book, and it showed off the amazing vocals of School of Arts and Sciences senior Emily Teubner, who played the simpy kid’s brother.

Greg himself gave an excellent performance. School of Arts and Sciences junior Natasha Marshall, who played the lead, was so convincing that I’d forget at times that she wasn’t actually a middle school boy. Greg’s character development was well played by Marshall, and it was through Rodrick and Greg’s sibling relationship that I thought both her and Teubner's acting shone brightly.

Of course, I can’t write this article without mentioning the crowd favorite, Rowley Jefferson, played by Julia Marcato, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences. It was during the party scene after Greg and Rodrick realized they could throw a rager with their parents gone that Rowley walked in with a box of Capri Sun, and everyone in the audience lost their minds. It was such a subtle choice that showed how well the actor and the creators knew the characters they had borrowed. 

Rowley often stole the show from Greg, who was often hesitant to share the spotlight with the former's kind, naive personality. Even more of a surprise than the Capri Sun moment was when the audience later learned that Rowley and Rodrick have been unknowingly messaging each other on an anonymous dating website. This realization earned its fair share of screams and screeches from both myself and the other audience members.

It was through moments like this as well as Rowley and Greg’s shaky friendship that really spoke to the piece being a coming-of-age story. Though ridiculous at times, the musical did an expert job of being true to life and showcasing the real struggles of later childhood which kept me completely invested in the story.

Earlier on in the show, we met Holly Hills and Patty Farrell played by Shannon Kathleen, a senior in the School of Nursing, and Erika Lucas, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, respectively. They sang a beautiful but all-too-true duet called "Object of Desire." The song detailed the harsh experiences teenage girls have in middle school.

I appreciated that Holly got to be her own character rather than just Greg’s love interest, which again attests to the surprising but delightful thought that the writers put into this parody musical.

Though the second act did a great job at wrapping things up, I thought the first act had much stronger songs. My two favorites in the whole musical were "Mom Bucks," a racy burlesque number led by Mason Gross senior Lindsay Paige Spitzer, who played Greg’s mother, which made the audience go wild, and "Rodrick’s Gay." The second of the two probably got the most laughs out of the entire show, and this was a high-energy number that really brought the production to life.

The strange and sometimes off-putting Fregley was played by School of Arts and Sciences senior Alyssa Scott, who used truly entertaining physical comedy to enhance her character and was one half of a funny and touching romance with School of Arts and Sciences junior Patrick Joyner who played the jock, Chad Jones.

Myron Molina, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, had a deadpan delivery on his jokes which worked in his roles as Greg's pathetic father, the creepy school coach and Manny, who he puppeteered for the majority of the show.

What made the show particularly enjoyable were the interactions between the cast and the audience. Characters passed out fliers, Rodrick chucked loaded diapers at the audience, Greg Heffley showed us a VHS copy of Russian pornography and Fregley even danced while wrapping a feather boa around my neck. You’re not going to get those kinds of special interactions at just any old show.

In the end, the show mastered balancing comedy and heart with the song "Friends Forever," which wrapped the story, as well as Greg’s character development, in a neat bow and displayed the beautiful harmonies of the whole cast.

Though "Diary of a Simpy Kid" has finished up all of its performances, I think it stands as a testament as to why college theater is worth supporting. The spaces are often more personal, especially at the Cabaret Theater, and it’s fun getting to see your peers up on stage.

It’s an especially unique experience getting to see a musical fully made by talented Rutgers students and one I recommend to any college student. The Cabaret Theater puts on shows throughout the school year, and you can even buy tickets to their upcoming production of "Into The Woods."

You can also see The Livingston Theater Company and The College Avenue Players perform throughout the semester. And if you got the chance to see "Diary of a Simpy Kid," then you’ll see some of your favorite actors perform for all three of these groups.

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