At some point, the ancient Greek mythological character Orpheus became a skinny-jeans-wearing 16-year-old American dude named Jasper. Their names might be different, but they do share a journey into the depths of the underworld for the noblest of reasons: to rescue their beloveds. Naturally, such a road is not so easy to navigate.
With a musical-theater-rock-y score by emerging composer Ryan Scott Oliver and a book by the actor-writer Hunter Foster, Jasper in Deadland, now being presented by Prospect Theatre Company, is a contemporary riff on the Orpheus and Eurydice story. He's just a kid who wants to escape the noise of teenage life and his parents' impending divorce. She's his super-in-love-with-him BFF named Agnes, though he doesn't share the same feelings. She goes cliff-diving to conquer her biggest fear and prove her worth to him. He hears her screaming for pain and follows her in. Suddenly, he's traveling on the Lethe, the mythical river of forgetfulness.
Oliver and Foster's nifty reimagining of the underworld finds purgatory as a big city, circa 2014. Not only do all the dead have iPhones to go along with their head wounds and track marks, but this place even has Wi-Fi. And it seems that the town is run by a Donald-Trump-meets-Ted-Turner scheming multizillionaire named Mr. Lethe (Ben Crawford), who made his money by selling bottled water that makes everyone feel better (hint, hint, clue, clue). He's one of many villains, a group that also includes a three-headed dog and a bumbling pair of Norse gods (F. Michael Haynie and Bonnie Milligan), who Jasper (Matt Doyle) must confront in order to find and save his love. There's also the non-villainous Gretchen (Allison Scagliotti), a local tour guide and map seller who takes an instant liking to Jasper and follows him on his journey.
Brandon Ivie directs the production with a less-is-more aesthetic that makes full use of the show's surroundings, the curved, concrete-walled West End Theatre at Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on 86th Street. Patrick Rizzotti's simply designed yet surprisingly ornate set allows the stately building to be seen completely, while Herrick Goldman's concert-style lighting creates evocative stage pictures. Bobby Pearce's costumes similarly speak to the show's contemporary tone. Best of all is the puppet design by Elizabeth Ostler, consisting of three massive dog heads with color-changing eyes.
Given that the staging is so inventively simple, it's hard not to wish that the text also was. Overall, Foster and Oliver have penned a sharp script, one that features so many smart allusions to various myths that they will make your head spin. But it also could use some generous dramaturgical pruning. As hilarious as Haynie and Milligan are as the deities Hel and Loki, these are but a few sequences that are extraneous in an already long two-and-a-half-hour show. Oliver's guitar-driven, angst-filled score shows a considerable amount of promise, but the lyrics are lost in Ed Chapman's ear-splitting sound design, which never finds a good balance between the five-member band and nine-member cast.
And with excellent voices like Doyle's and Scagliotti's and Crawford's, does the score really need so much amplification? Crawford could afford to make himself a touch scarier on the villain scale, but the handsome Doyle and pretty Scagliotti are perfectly cast as the romantic leads. He's got the right touch of nerd in him, while she's the manic pixie dream girl every teenage boy dreams of. Singing Oliver's introspective lyrics, these talented performers take us back to our high school days when we dreamed of an escape from the real world and into someone's strong, cuddly arms. Thankfully, we didn't have to take a trip to purgatory to do so.