Who would have thought that a viral video could inspire a wonderful, original new musical? In 2007, a video of Philippine prison inmates dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became an internet sensation, leading the creators of Prison Dancer: The Musical, playing at The Theater at St. Clements, to imagine the lives of seven of those prisoners. Among them is a hardened death row inmate, a bitter newcomer who rebuffs his devoted girlfriend's efforts to help him, and a sweet-natured but tough transsexual who is given the task of teaching the prisoners to dance as a part of a unique rehabilitation program.
While there is no full re-enactment of the YouTube sensation in the show, this is such a powerful story, full of rich, delightful characters, that that's beside the point. Carmen de Jesus and Romeo Candido give us a warm, witty book that does a great job showing how every aspect of the dancing transforms the lives of these troubled criminals. For them, the simple act of dancing facilitates cooperation between former enemies, helps the inmates use their pent-up energy in a positive way rather than fighting, provides them personal fulfillment, and eventually attracts worldwide attention.
Unusual for a musical, Prison Dancer has a DJ (Nicole Swartzentruber) accompanying the singers, helping bring Candido's electronica and keyboard-heavy score to life. An impressive showcase of Filipino talent, the production boasts a cast that is excellent across the board. Jose Llana and Jeigh Madjus in particular get moments to shine vocally in soul-searching ballads, and everyone gets an opportunity to show off their dance skills, notably in the show's joyous finale. (The captivating choreography is provided by director/choreographers Jenn Rapp and Ricky Whitfield.)
Except for the basic premise, Prison Dancer is not based on fact, but it offers an interesting take on what might have happened "behind-the-scenes" of that striking viral video. These characters' tragedies, near-tragedies, and triumphs make for a compelling story of hope and survival in a terrible place.
-- Brooke Pierce
We learn Bonnie is on probation after talking to her students about Jesus. Meanwhile, Neil (having just moved back to the small Ohio town where the musical is set) is eager for people to talk to and treat. He's left a lucrative job in New York to practice an experimental treatment method but finding clients is difficult despite his passion. "We tend to trust our hands more than our eyes," he explains to Bonnie when she comes in after having injured her neck for the countless time. She's puzzled when he asks her questions instead of just popping it back into place and floored when it actually works.
The pleasure she experiences causes her to launch into song ("Born Again Again"), exclaiming, "on a scale from one to ten I'm feeling, "hell, Yeah!". A kinship grows between them despite his unease towards religion and hers towards gay people, and she invites him to recruit clients at her bible study. "Think of it as a book club...where everyone likes the book!" she says to convince him.
There's a sincerity about Swing State that's affecting, and Resnick and Weed complement each other's energies nicely exchanging witty lines. While the show never quite builds to reach its potential, Yeaton and Minton along with director Igor Goldin craft a story void of clichés with social and political undertones that are muted enough to let two vivid characters come to life.
-- Chris Kompanek
The story is set in England, and centers on Will Timeson (Omar Lopez-Cepero), a rich, talented chemist, and his best friend, Jack Mercer (Adam Monley), a doctor. After the men's breakthrough discovery -- which involves a bit of suspension of disbelief regarding the leaps in logic they make about their largely untested serum -- the two men agree not to make any more of the immortality elixir unless they both agree upon it.
The show raises intriguing ethical issues in regards to how and to what ends the men should use their discovery, but these are superceded by the more conventional love triangle that develops when Fiona (Kelly McCormick) enters the picture, the victim of what we eventually learn is a curse resulting from black magic.
With a running time of two and a half hours, the show feels both overstuffed and insufficiently realized -- particularly when it comes to adequately accounting for the motivations behind some of the actions taken by the characters. Certain scenes and songs do help to flesh out relationship dynamics, but overall the feelings of love, betrayal and forgiveness bandied about within the musical seem merely sketched in.
The score is admittedly derivative of other epic musicals such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities, but it contains some catchy tunes with the best being the soaring anthem, "Sons of Adam," sung by Will and Jack. Lopez-Cepero is the standout singer in the cast, and his tender rendition of "Will's Confession" is another highlight of the production.
-- Dan Bacalzo
The 90-minute musical is plagued with a generic book by Jason Slavick that fails to capture the enduring power of Grimm's classic tales, and a lackluster score by Cassandra Marsh that trudges up cookie cutter melodies of the most maudlin of Broadway shows and soft rock relics. Slavick's thin lyrics don't help in advancing the plot -- a princess who searches the globe for her prince -- and mostly feel like filler.
In the playbill, he writes of the show being a "punk cabaret" in the vein of Amanda Palmer. This is puzzling as the music and over-the-top dramatization couldn't be farther from punk ethos, but I couldn't help thinking of Palmer's superbly imaginative Evelyn, Evelyn that played off-Broadway a few seasons ago. Slavick and Marsh's show also features conjoined twins but the similarities end there. While Palmer's twins examine the nature of their identity, Slavick and Marsh's merely scream at each other in a shrill voice.
This lack of nuance seeps through the entire show but comes to a head in the penultimate number, "BFB," when the cast leads a reluctant audience to sing along to a song that features little more than the word "bitch." The creators seem to have taken "punk" to simply mean brash, and this is a disservice not only to the audience but to the talented cast trapped in this dreadful show.
-- Chris Kompanek
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