by Matt Smith
“Where is your sense of adventure? Aren’t you curious what life will be like in several thousand years?” Such is the question posed at the top of the whimsical new musicalization of H. G. Wells’ classic novel, The Time Machine, written by David Mauk and Brenda Mandabach, and directed by Justin Baldridge (in his NYMF debut!), recently played the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row as part of the New York Musical Festival.
What follows, as one might expect, is the discovery of an answer, wrapped into a rollicking evening of expanded story, which adds songs to flesh out and expand the inner monologue of each character, while simultaneously staying true to the namesake novel on which its based.
The plot, like the novel, follows the Time Traveller Thomas, who journeys twenty years into the future (and back again!) in an attempt to prevent a rival inventor from poaching and disturbing his prized, titular time machine. Along the way, he encounters an unearthed dystopia and its equally disheartened inhabitants; his attempt to free these natives from the horrid, soul-sucking Morlocks may be thwarted when he falls for their gorgeously radiant leader, Winnesa.
The premise of a madcap thriller if ever there was one, right?! Unfortunately, the pace of the piece doesn’t match that description. Not a gripe, but an observation… and understandably so, as the producers don’t shy away from emphasizing the piece is in development (and indeed, that’s the whole point of the festival and what it champions). Nonetheless, the 115-minute romp is slow to start (not aided in the least by the Sondheimian dozen-words-a-minute opener), and the piece as a whole feels like it’s doing much with its music; that is, it’s a bit too “stuffed”, so to speak, moving hurriedly from song to song, with little room to breathe in between — leaving audiences to conclude that perhaps some of the songs were written just for the sake of having songs in place. (Some — not all — don’t advance character, cover ground and plot previously covered, etc.) Which is not to say the show doesn’t flesh out its characters in other, more insightful ways. For one, the musical gives a name to its hero, thus establishing his history and identity (a major plus!), and adds a deliciously despicable new character, who further complicates the mayhem and presents a secondary obstacle for Thomas to overcome.
Good thing, too, as Randal Keith gives one of the best performances of the night. In full form as the dastardly delectable Dash, he revels in playing both the villain and the comedian, punctuating each line with a pause, wink or nudge, which become more pronounced as the character grows more maniacal. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Hunsaker (Thomas) simply couldn’t be more endearing, injecting, first the inventor with a childlike sense of wonderment, and then, the lover, with a bold, impassioned determination to push through and fight for what you believe. (And then, of course, that voice… OMG!)
The use of costumes is inspired as well. In lieu of a bulky time machine, designer Vanessa Leuck cleverly utilizes its ensemble, outfitting a handful in bronze jumpsuits, with bug-like masks and wings to match, and having them perform an array of complex choreography (the work of Jim Cooney) while a Phantom-esque Thomas sings directly to them — collectively simulating movement through the space-time continuum. The set (Lauren Mills) and lighting (Jamie Roderick) design are equally praiseworthy; separate pieces that together make up a concrete time machine, perpetually surround the actors throughout; they’re encased within the machine at all times… presumably making the statement that (in the real world) we’re forever entrapped in time… it marches on regardless, and there’s truly no way of escaping it. In terms of the lighting, the slower ballads in particular (often sung in the fantastical land of the Eloi) find the characters in warm pools of pink and blue, to offset the striking sharpness of the harsh white bulbs in the laboratory.
What really saves the show, however, is its heart and the aforementioned message it aims to instill within its audience: You control your own destiny. “A flame-filled forest begins with one spark….only I can make it so,” Thomas sings toward the end of the show, just before declaring his decision to go back and reverse his fate. His announcement (and the preceding lyric) help to illustrate that change comes from within, and it all begins with you and “that spark….you invent using your mind.” He did believe in himself. He did follow through. He did push past the naysayers and wasn’t discouraged by what other people thought and said about him. He did, as he inquired at the start, discover what “life would be like in several thousand years” (well, 20… but still…) and successfully navigate throughout the ether. He proved if something matters to you, it’s worth standing by, no matter what anyone else tells you. And that (albeit, merely) is enough to look beyond its clunky book. That, as they sing repeatedly throughout the evening, is worth celebrating and fighting for… “until the end of time.”
Photos: Russ Rowland
The Time Machine played the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) July 11 and 13-16th. The New York Musical Festival, now in its fourteenth year, continues at venues around Manhattan through August 6th. For more information, please visit www.nymf.org or www.thetimemachinethemusical.com.