Mostly we’re going to look at the show rather than the production, but there’s a lot of excellent singing and dancing going on. Braxton is great, and the rest of the large cast acquits themselves honorably. Notable in supporting parts are Alison Novelli as Jacqui (whose Act 2 solo spot was a highlight), and Lucas Schultz and Noah Marlowe whom we first meet as Young Kurt and Young Peter. The choreography by Richard J. Hinds was outstanding.
In some ways this is a typical NYMF show: the authors, amateurs with little practical theater experience, have put a year or more of sincere hard work into it. They’ve raised a sum in the low five figures for a shoestring production (though some NYMF shows spend twice as much), and the family and friends at each performance stand and cheer.
It would be a great favor to the entire community if NYMF would direct potential presenters to a book such as David Spencer’s The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide, if only to keep them from driving off well-known cliffs and into well-known walls. For it must be reported, and again typically, that this show is not good, and that however much their acquaintances may enjoy the performance this is not going to appeal to anyone else.
Out of respect for their hard work, we’re going to spend a bit of time examining what went wrong, so wrong that the show is probably not worth fixing. We’ll use the roster of musical numbers as our guide and walk through Act 1.
Prologue: “Imagine the Future” – This song is unnecessary, as is the whole scene. The anti-Semitic Santa Claus who sings this (his first line is “Get the hell away from me, you dirty little dreidel worshipers!”) never comes back, and nothing he sings about tells us anything we don’t know before we walk into the theater. The real purpose of the scene is to introduce the two young brothers who will (as adults) be the actual protagonists, but they don’t drive the song, Santa Claus does. The bottom line is that for this whole scene we’re just sitting and waiting for the plot to get into first gear.
Act 1: “Truth and Lies” – It’s twenty years later, and the adult boys (Peter and Kurt), now estranged, sing this song with their parents. It establishes the basic point that on the Internet truth is hard to ascertain and is often deliberately distorted. This is the main topic of the musical, so that’s good. But many of the “rhymes” don’t rhyme (lies/revised, dropped/Photoshop), or depend on mis-stressed words (“Mom would never know / Dad was a big homo”). Newcomers sometimes claim that precise rhythms and rhymes don’t really matter, but if they think so why are they writing a musical? Anyway, the scene does establish that something very odd is happening to the brothers’ world, and somehow the unspecified conflict between them wants to get resolved.
“Search Engine Crash” – Our heroes wake up in a chaotic landscape; apparently, they have somehow been pulled into cyberspace. They sing that they’re here because of a “search engine crash,” but the song is pointless because search engines have nothing to do with why they’re there and are not important to the plot. (Also they don’t crash.) Really, characters shouldn’t sing about red herrings or things that don’t matter to anyone, it wastes precious time.
At this point we learn why the brothers are estranged:
KURT: Peter, don’t you think this little feud of ours has gone on way too long? I don’t even remember how it started!
PETER: You slept with my fiancée.
KURT: Oh, right. (beat) Even so, don’t you think it’s time we bury the hatchet?
PETER: Not unless you can go back in time and un-fuck Marissa Holt.
This is suddenly pretty serious stuff for a light comedy, but at least it’s dramatic, and at least we know the subject is sure to come up again.
“A Kitten’s History of the Internet” – sung by three kittens who claim to have invented the Internet. Another waste of time, as nothing they sing about matters to the story, and neither do they.
At this point, it became apparent that the authors figured they would write a series of sketch-comedy scenes, and that would be a musical. Possibly they think it analogous to picaresque novellas like Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth. But those books take many hours to read, and you don’t do so all in one sitting, so it’s advantageous to have entertaining self-contained chapters. Musicals aren’t like that; they aren’t set-pieces with songs stuck in, they’re musical compositions made of songs bridged with dialog that happen in uninterrupted sequence. Individual moments of comedy and conflict are all subservient to the large-scale rise and release of plot tension as articulated by the songs. So Alice in Wonderland, like most fairy tales, is a terrible model for a musical.
The sketch-comedy approach might, just might work, if every scene were a perfect comic gem that built faultlessly on the scenes before. But even a musical that sometimes seems to be doing this, like Avenue Q, has a tightly-coupled story.
Anyway, besides the inconsequential kittens, this scene introduced an important secondary character, a blogger named Jacqui, though she doesn’t get introduced in song. The kittens do tell the heroes that the way back to reality is through the Land of Wikipedia, but it’s blocked by the Spam King. The response:
PETER: I’m not going to let some sperm king [sic] get in the way of us getting home. I need to sign my divorce papers by noon tomorrow or else I lose everything.
KURT: You’re signing divorce papers on Christmas?
JACQUI: Dude, that’s so sad.
This is how they learn that Peter and his wife are breaking up. “By noon tomorrow” seems to be setting up a “ticking clock” to increase dramatic urgency, but the deadline is never mentioned again. Still, this is the first point at which the protagonists have an announced goal, namely getting back home.
The next scene introduces Morgan Freeman (yes, a character meant to be the actor), who also gets no song, but really he’s just a plot device.
“Mean is the New Nice” – sung by the Spam King. This is the Villain Song, about as good a number as we’re going to get. It’s flashy, it’s fun (thank you Trent Jeffords), it delineates the character without having to mean much. But…the role is played by Brenda Braxton in a skintight outfit, and although several characters ask over the course of the show why she’s not called the “Spam Queen,” no good answer is given. Also, the character of the Spam King has nothing to do with spam, or the real-world “spam king” (Stanford Wallace), so it’s just baffling.
You can get away with a lot when a performer is as good as Braxton, but please don’t give her an outfit that screams potential wardrobe malfunction. She doesn’t need it, and you really don’t want people that focused on her décolletage, no matter how attractive.
Now comes a dialogue scene in “the cemetery of unsent emails.” Okay, except “unsent emails” are exactly what is not found on the Internet, that’s their defining characteristic. This problematic illogic is going to crop up again later.
“Welcome to the Land of Wikipedia” – Sung by Jeeves (as in AskJeeves) and a chorus wearing Google Glass (none of whom we will hear from again). This is at least on topic: Wikipedia is the editable quasi-truth. They also sing “The knowledge we share can defeat the Spam King,” which sounds like it matters to the story but doesn’t.
Next come some dialogue scenes as the characters (the two brothers, plus Jacqui and Morgan Freeman) fall into Wikipedia pages and discover the way out is to correct their factual errors. This is actually relevant to the underlying theme of the show, but there’s no song, and if you don’t happen to know that Adam Levine fronts the band Maroon 5 one of the scenes is a dead wait.
Notice that at this point the brothers still have no clue as to how to get back to their reality, so the plot is just treading water.
“The Brother Song” – Until now the structure has simply been weak, or the songs badly chosen, but this is where things begin to go irretrievably wrong. We are in the “Room of Brothers,” (is that even a thing, online or off?) where we find the Mario Bros., the Blues Brothers, and Eli and Peyton Manning, and we get a paean to the virtues of brotherhood. Kurt uses the swelling music to appeal to Peter’s sense of brotherliness, based on their shared childhood. It builds to a big finish, in which (according to the stage direction) “Kurt has prevailed, showing everyone the true meaning of brotherhood.”
Okay, stop right there. Just before the song we’ve had this:
JACQUI: He slept with your wife?
PETER: Well, she was only my fiancée at the time.
MORGAN FREEMAN: You broke up his marriage?
KURT: I wish. But he still married her!
This is very weird, and kind of gross, as if Kurt is trying to say yes, I slept with her, but I didn’t do it for me, I did it for him! And that’s the true meaning of brotherhood. But the music actually gets us to forget all that for a millisecond, which is composer Jeffords, and actors Harrington and Peters, spinning straw into gold.
As with the illogical unsent emails, we have to ask: Mario Brothers? Blues Brothers? What’s that got to do with cyberspace? And now Luigi somehow betrays them all to the Spam King (without meaningful explanation, and we never see him or his brother again), sending them all off into the “8-bit dungeon,” another video game reference which again has no relevance to the Internet.
And so the entire enterprise has gone off the rails, and that’s the Act 1 curtain.
The story makes less and less sense as Act 2 goes along. We pick up a couple more significant secondary characters (like “Emoticon,”) who again don’t get songs, and many minor characters (Bill Gates, Jimmy Wales, Mark Zuckerberg, and Princess LOL) whose connection to the story is more and more tenuous. Eventually, they tell us that the Spam King is Steve Jobs (even though they acknowledge he’s dead); then finally the Spam King shows up in person and reveals that she’s really Steve Wozniak…at which point you had to wonder if the writers had any idea at all what they were talking about. It’s as if they read a book about the Internet written fifteen years ago but never used it themselves.
Facing some kind of magical viral doom, the brothers have a heart-to-heart moment:
PETER: I’m sorry I blamed you. It’s not your fault that I decided to sit back and watch life pass me by.
KURT: I know I screwed everything up when I banged Marissa Holt on the kitchen counter.
PETER: You did, you did.
KURT: And I’ve regretted it every day of my life. Here.
And Kurt shows him an “unsent email” (so that’s what that scene was for) where he apologizes for screwing Marissa, and somehow this makes it all better; Jacqui and Peter are now somehow a couple; the secondary characters somehow defeat the Spam King. The brothers and Jacqui all end up back at the parents’ house on Christmas morning. Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Oglesby, appear and greet everyone cheerfully, and you think you’re safe for the finale.
MRS. OGLESBY: (to her husband) I have no idea who that young lady is, but true love or mail order bride, I’m just glad it’s not that slut Marissa Holt.
Well, that’s just indecent. We’ve swung all the way from it’s all the guy’s fault to it’s all the girl’s fault, and that’s the resolution, the happy ending, the true meaning of brotherhood.
And then they all sang the finale, and the friends and family all stood and cheered.
Wikimusical (July 18 – 26, 2014)
The New York Music Theatre Festival
PTC Performance Space, 555 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets and information, visit http://www.nymf.org
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission