CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the 13 years that Diane Paulus has been artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, she has used it as a laboratory for developing new musicals and re-envisioning old ones, then ushering them to Broadway success. “Waitress” and “Jagged Little Pill” had their premieres there; so did Paulus’s staging of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and her revival of “Pippin,” which won her a Tony Award for directing.
But at Thursday’s opening night performance of “Wild: A Musical Becoming,” a climate-change eco-fable starring the Tony winner Idina Menzel, Paulus began her preshow speech by ratcheting down the audience’s expectations of this latest premiere.
“Musicals take years to develop,” she said. “But the subject matter of this story tonight was so pressing that we felt we could not wait to share it with you.”
The actors would perform with scripts in hand, she added. Our imaginations would be required to fill in the blanks of what the A.R.T. is calling a concert production.
All of which is fair enough. But the charismatic lead and hummable pop score of “Wild” can’t camouflage the fact that this musical is very much in the awkward phase of becoming whatever it ultimately might be.
Still, it can make for an enjoyable evening, depending on your willingness to overlook the ungainly book by V, the playwright formerly known as Eve Ensler, and get over your disappointment in a show that includes Javier Muñoz — a.k.a. Broadway’s sexy Hamilton — but gives him far too little to do, and dresses him dowdily. Actually, you may have to get over the other actors’ costumes, too.
Directed by Paulus at the Loeb Drama Center, the story takes place in a town called Outskirtzia. Hard up for cash, the local farmers get an offer from corporate outsiders called the Extractacals: $50,000 apiece in exchange for drilling on their land.
The community’s adults are tempted; the teenagers are alarmed. That strife is the primary tension of a show that, for all its ecological advocacy, is also a parable about understanding between parents and children.
Menzel plays Bea, a farmer struggling with her mortgage who could use the windfall from the Extractacals. But her adolescent daughter, Sophia (the mononymous musician-actor Yde), is so terrified of the destruction of the planet and outraged by the adults’ complicity in it that she falls into a catatonic state, then disappears into the forest and transforms into a sea horse.
It may or may not be a spoiler to say that other children in the town follow suit, each manifesting as a different kind of animal, each determined to save the earth from their parents’ recklessness.
With the grown-ups in danger of selling their souls, “Wild” is partly a morality play, gesturing in the direction of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” — and also toward Brecht, Dr. Seuss and “Urinetown.” All of it in two dimensions.
Which is unfortunate, because the cast is packed with talent. Menzel, a disarmingly sympathetic not-so-evil stepmother in Amazon’s recent “Cinderella,” brings an appealing ease and playfulness to Bea, and adds a touch of country music to the richness of her voice (Menzel’s run in the show ends Dec. 23). And Yde opens a window to Sophia’s soul with a couple of striking solos, “Dear Everything” and “Human.”
With music principally by the pop songwriters Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell, and lyrics principally by Tranter, Pennell and V, “Wild” is a slickly produced work in progress. Rock-show lighting by the excellent Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew is remarkably effective in revving up the crowd during the more anthemic numbers.
The cast of 10 is backed by a three-piece band (the music director is David Freeman Coleman) and members of the Boston Children’s Chorus, who add vocal depth and, by their presence, enhance the sense of a generation demanding action.
But the show comes across as more pageant than musical, with politics paramount. Too often, the text bonks us over the head with its messaging, as when Sophia’s friend Forte (Paravi Das) explains that “all living things are now being seriously jeopardized by us humans — well, non-Indigenous humans, of course.”
And does a debate over pronouns really need to erupt — around Possible (the very funny Luke Ferrari), a nonbinary teenager, and their unaccepting father, Mr. Custom (Muñoz) — during the crisis over Sophia’s disappearance? Might there be a more organic moment to make the same point?
The only actor who briefly lucks into dialogue that lets whole characters emerge is Josh Lamon, as the excitable Minister Muddle and the ultra-tranquil therapist Dr. Projection.
“Your children were traumatized by learning about the consequences of you leasing your lands,” Dr. Projection tells the parents of Outskirtzia. “Then you told them you didn’t care what they thought or felt. You made them feel unimportant and unseen.”
Somehow, from Dr. Projection, this lesson doesn’t feel like a lesson — a rare sensation in “Wild.” The show’s creators frequently seem under the impression that virtue excuses lapses in artistry, as when a program notehighlights the eco-consciousness of its costume construction.
The designers, SiiGii, Roy Caires and Tommy Cole, write that they used “exclusively second hand, recycled and repurposed materials.” Yet the outfits, in nonsensical patchworks of denim and plaid, are unflattering — “Hee Haw” meets the apocalypse — in a way that seems condescending, as if being poor and rural meant having no sense of style.
The show’s successful reuse of scenic elements from earlier this season — the set of the A.R.T.’s “Macbeth In Stride” (by Dan Soule), augmented with luxuriantly leafy sculptures (by Daniel Callahan) from its “The Arboretum Experience” — makes a worthier point: that recycled materials don’t need to feel penitential.
“Wild” is meeting the world before it’s ready, but there is something ultimately affecting in it about parents and teenagers, and something commendable, too, about theater that tries to respond to the urgent concerns of the day.
“We want you to panic, we want you to act,” the children sing, indicting their elders. “You stole our future, and we want it back.” However clumsily, “Wild” is on the side of the kids — an offering of respect and contrition from the grown-ups, while there’s still time.
Wild: A Musical Becoming
Through Jan. 2 at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass.; americanrepertorytheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.