CAMBRIDGE — “WILD: A Musical Becoming,” receiving its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater, has an energy that resembles a spontaneous rally. It’s a concert presentation of a well-crafted musical fable that is shot through with magical realism and carried by a cast of strong performers, including Broadway veteran Idina Menzel and up-and-comer YDE. The “let’s put on a show” feel afforded by some actors carrying around scripts, costumes made from repurposed denim, and the stripped-down stage setting at the Loeb Drama Center add to the uninhibited affect. But the songs, which thread the bulk of the show’s narrative, burn with urgency, and their smolder makes the underlying message of “WILD” — that the climate catastrophe is a dire threat to future generations — linger long after the curtain calls have subsided.
Menzel and YDE play mother and daughter Bea and Sophia, who live on a family farm in the small town of Outskirtzia; Bea harvests corn and is living on the knife edge of losing everything, while Sophia is a dreamer with big opinions and an acutely felt passion for the world. The pair gel both in dialogue and in song, their voices braiding on songs like the brisk opener “Mouths to Feed” and the tender duet “Do You Remember,” and that affection adds gravity to the show’s ensuing events. (Menzel plays Bea through Dec. 23; Crystal Monee Hall takes over the role from Dec. 27 through Jan. 2.)
After learning in school about all the species that have gone extinct, Sophia slips into a days-long fugue state: “Her eyes were open, but she was staring into another world,” her friend Forte (played by the robust-voiced Paravi Das) describes it. She’s finally goaded out of it, but a fortnight-long rainstorm that leads to her mother’s corn harvest being totally lost, and the encroaching of an entity called the Extractacals — who want to pay Outskirtzia’s cash-strapped residents big money to set up drills on their farmland — result in her leading a youth protest that turns the town inside out.
The protest begins with “Panic,” which was Thursday evening’s first showstopper. It’s framed as being part of “Everything Goes Theater Day,” a town-wide assembly featuring songs and performances by students. “We have written this piece for the adults,” Forte announces before a slew of kids (members of the Boston Children’s Chorus) stream onstage, ready for action. In the context of the show, “Panic” is directed at the adults of Outskirtzia, but it’s clearly a message for the audience as well: “We want you to panic/We want you to act/You stole our future/We want it back,” they bellow again and again, and the effect is heart-rending.
But the town’s adults don’t listen — the problems solved by the Extractacals’ money seem more pressing to them. (“When you don’t have a boot/How the hell do you pull up the strap?” Bea asks in the boisterous barroom lament “Paradoxical Dilemma.”) Eventually the youths of the town are inspired to take more drastic measures, sending the community further into chaos.
“WILD” is a piece of protest art that confronts its audience with plainly stated facts, buffered by humor, earnestness, and otherworldliness. The supporting performances are stellar, particularly those by Das and Luke Ferrari, who plays Sophia’s fellow confidant Possible, as well as Brittany Campbell, who inhabits the well-meaning schoolteacher Oak with grace and weariness. The music, written chiefly by pop architects Justin Tranter (Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez) and Caroline Pennell (Demi Lovato, Ava Max), propels the show, with songs flowing into each other and looping back on themselves. The pair’s in-depth knowledge of modern pop brightens the younger cast members’ songs like Sophia’s fragile “Dear Everything,” which, thanks to its arrangement and YDE’s deeply felt performance, possesses the vibrancy of musical theater while also maintaining an edge that recalls Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo.
“WILD,” which has a book by V (the former Eve Ensler) and contributions from Menzel, is still in development; director Diane Paulus told the Globe earlier this month that the story’s central gravity made mounting a production imperative. There are aspects of the script that could use some fine-tuning, such as the portrayal of the relationship between school bully Bicker Rail (the scrappy Michael Williams) and his grouchy father (the blustery Josh Lamon). But the way in which the songs of “WILD,” and their passionate performers, alert the audience to the Earth’s perilous future make it a vital statement.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WILD: A Musical Becoming
Book by V. Music by Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell with contributions by Eren Cannata; lyrics by Justin Tranter, Caroline Pennell, and V; additional contributions by Idina Menzel. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreographed by Chanel DaSilva. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 2. Tickets $25-$150. 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.org