Review by Avis Alger
Like any healthy organic creation process, things start out small, like a water drop, and then they evolve and flow into a single powerful creation, a force of nature. But it is a solid foundation with a clear strong structure that creates the most affective and memorable works of art; the timeless classics… The ones that last centuries, influence all generations, and seem eternal; much like the plethora of mythological archetypes thoughtlessly tossed into this musical. Simplicity, clarity, continuity, and strength are tremendously out of style, particularly in the younger American musicals. Unfortunately, this original musical, with book by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver, music and lyrics also by Oliver, is part of that corrosive trend.
Jasper In Deadland, the story of a high school boy on a quest to save his “best friend” who ends up in an undefined underworld where being dead and drinking the water erase your memory, is highly entertaining! This is largely due to its phenomenal multitalented ensemble of highly crafted non-pop culture celebrities. This Greek Chorus features the dazzling talents of: Andi Alhadeff, Ben Crawford, James Crichton, Matt Doyle as Jasper, Leo Ash Evens, Danyel Fulton, F. Michael Haynie, John-Michael Lyles, Bonnie Milligan, and Allison Scagliotti as Gretchen. They all can sing every genre authentically! Ryan Scott Oliver’s brilliant music dynamically ranges from rock, folk indie rock, to both contemporary and legit musical theater, and it’s mostly infectious stuff. Days later, you may still have the chorus of “Stroke by Stroke” stuck in your head; the simple and clear refrain was effective and memorable! Moreover, all ensemble have to play vastly varied characters. Bravo to them!
Technically speaking, not being able to understand the lyrics while having microphones taped to your face is inexcusable, and ultimately frustrating. The opening scenes until Jasper rushes to save Anges, are superfluous exposition, don’t establish the vibe for the piece, don’t match the integrity of the rest of the show, and have an overload of chaotic stimulation. It’s off-putting instead of engaging. The beginning feels like a typical angsty narcissistic teen rock musical. If they moved the age of the cast to young professionals in their early twenties, perhaps they would have a more universal audience.
Patrick Rizzotti’s set is imaginative, versatile, powerful, and transforms with Director Brandon Ivie’s simple yet compelling blocking. It’s amazing to behold, just classic wooden boards, and sheets of fabric, that you could place in almost any world or century.
They could do better. It has become the normal expectation for an American rock musical as a structure to be a disjointed body of work; and it’s surprising when it’s good. It’s surprising when it makes cohesive sense and it ebbs and flows. There was a general lack or refinement throughout the show. Nothing flowed like water. Plus there were cheap gimmicks and actor proof jokes, like spontaneous bladder problems, that degraded the integrity of the work, and were distracting; extra unmotivated songs that didn’t propel the plot forward, and some monotonous motifs. Frankly, I can’t remember what I’m supposed to take with me from all of this, and I didn’t “die” or “drink the water.” This show has made it surprisingly far without anyone pointing that out to the creative team.
The truth is, if you are going to reference the giant jewels of mythology, the greatest myths of all time, your story has to be truly succinct, and extremely well developed, because you will be compared to the greatest stories of all time. And they have been polished for centuries.
It’s a historic time for Jasper In Deadland. Catch it now in this incarnation until April 13 at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew. For tickets go to prospecttheater.org or call 212-352-3101.
Photos: Matthew Murphy