Jenny Schwartz’s disorienting, delightful new musical, Iowa, is a national meditation disguised as family drama. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll with antic songs by Schwartz and composer Todd Almond, this dystopian reverie imagines a loopy, frenetic America — one that would give any reasonable person emotional whiplash.
Becca (Jill Shackner) is a fourteen-year-old who likes normal stuff: writing poetry, hanging with her bestie, and fantasizing about her math teacher. Too bad her Champagne-swilling mother (Karyn Quackenbush) has fallen in love on Facebook and plans on uprooting them both to join her cyber-fiancé in Iowa. As Becca rebels, then relents, Schwartz conducts a survey of contemporary Americana: There are stray emojis and fashion burkas, angsty cheerleaders and polygamous sister-wives, not to mention a pony that periodically crosses the stage.
These narrative non sequiturs provide pretext for Schwartz and Almond’s poignantly odd songs, in which characters rhapsodize about flying to Mars and agonize about everything from fracking to cyberbullies. Iowa depicts an off-kilter world where kids are saner than parents, women chew hay to lose weight, and people append hashtags to their deepest thoughts.
The multiplying plot twists eventually make it tough to follow Becca’s story (and to care). But to Schwartz’s credit, Iowa is never predictable — and its strangeness is purposeful, offering a real warning about the surreal world around us.