Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Jasper In Deadland': Rockin' Out In The Underworld

Matt Doyle and Allison Scagliotti in 'Jasper in Deadland'
Photo by Matt Murphy

To commandeer a quote from Stephen Sondheim, “They do an awful lot of dancing, the dead.” They do a lot of singing, too, in the Prospect Theater Company’s production of the rollicking new rock musical Jasper in Deadland, on stage at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. 

The show, boasting a score by Ryan Scott Oliver (a Jonathan Larson grant recipient) and a book penned by Mr. Oliver and Hunter Foster (yes, that Hunter Foster, now treading the boards in Broadway’s The Bridges of Madison County), is a thrilling ride through the Underworld as its title character seeks to rescue his best friend and bring her back with him to the land of the living.

Jasper in Deadland, a mashup of Dante’s Inferno and assorted myths about the Netherworld, may owe a nod to Larson’s megahit Rent, which also borrowed its plot from a classical source.  But its musical inspiration is surely Spring Awakening; if you should happen not to catch the connection to “The Bitch of Living” through the music and choreography, one of the characters is there to remind us that “life is a bitch.”  

Unlike its predecessors, however, Jasper in Deadland eschews a tone of overbearing angst for one that is far more upbeat.  Oh, there are moments where we may briefly fear that Jasper will fail at his quest and either return empty-handed (like Orpheus) or remain among the dead until he becomes one of them permanently. But, really, it’s OK to ignore Dante’s warning; do not “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

So forget the ugly stuff under the rock.  Jasper’s main torment is “the noise” of a teenager’s daily life, exacerbated by the breakup of his parents and a gnawing sense of responsibility when his friend Agnes (who is in love with him) dives off a cliff into a lake—either in an act of conquering her fear or one of desperation.    

It is through his attempt to save her that Jasper (Matt Doyle)—a star swimmer—finds himself at the entrance to Deadland, a world that is surprisingly similar to the one he left behind, with plenty of “noise” of its own. Here he experiences a multitude of adventures as he wends his way through the six zones (reduced from Dante’s nine circles of hell) leading eventually to Elysium, all the while looking for Agnes. 

The problem is, one of the side effects of hanging out with the dead is that you tend to forget things—which can either be a curse or a blessing, depending on what it is you start to forget. In this instance, forgetfulness is purposefully promulgated by a fiendish character known as Mr. Lethe (Ben Crawford), who has cornered the market on bottled water from the River Lethe. If Jasper had been paying attention in his Humanities class, he might have known that one of the properties of the water in that river is that it promotes forgetfulness in all those who drink from it.  And so, with each sip, Agnes starts to fade from his mind.

Fortunately, Jasper has had the good fortune to hook up with a sympathetic tour guide, Gretchen (Allison Scagliotti, best known for TV work but who takes to the musical theater stage like a seasoned veteran). 

Poor Agnes.  Whoever she is, she can’t possibly hold a candle to Gretchen for friendship, sacrifice, and love. It is Gretchen who guides Jasper safely past the dangers posed by the likes of Mr. Lethe and his aide-de-camp, the Chuckster (F. Michael Haynie, a talented and comically eccentric actor); the Egyptian demoness Ammut (Danyel Fulton, a powerful belter), known—for good reason—as the “Eater of Hearts;” and the oddball pair from Norse mythology, Loki (Mr. Haynie again) and Hel (Bonnie Milligan). These two pop up periodically, like Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum—thereby providing the connection between the musical’s title and Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (though with a touch of Wagner in their singing).   

In the end, with a last-minute intervention by the goddess Persephone (Andi Alhadeff), who, after all, is well acquainted with entering and exiting the Underworld on a regular basis, Jasper is allowed to return to the land of the living (With Agnes?  With Gretchen?  Please—no spoilers here!), and all ends on a most hopeful note with the joyful and spirited song “One More Day of Snow.” 

Commendations all around for this production, which makes full use of the small stage area at the West End Theater—from Lorin Latarro’s choreography, to Patrick Rizzotti’s scenic design (which makes clever use of a breakaway platform), to the costume design by Bobby Pearce, who makes the world of the living rather bland looking and the world of the dead a most colorful place to be, sort of the costumer’s version of the switch from sepia tones to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz.  Thumbs up, too, to the fine band, conducted by Ryan Fielding Garrett.

Under Brandon Ivie’s fast-paced directing, the cast is excellent, starting with Mr. Doyle (a boy-next-door charmer who has played the role of Elder Price in The Book of Mormon on Broadway and whose singing brings to mind Aaron Tveit), and Ms. Scagliotti (who really must do more musical theater), and including all the rest of the high caliber performers. 

One last thing before I end.  At the performance I attended, I sat next to a young woman named Amara, an up-and-coming actress from Chicago who clearly loves the theater. I give a shout-out to Amara and to all of the members of the mostly youthful audience who are living proof that the musical theater is vibrant, alive, and well—and far from heading to Deadland.

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