NYMF 2015: Acappella; The Calico Buffalo; Claudio Quest
This is TheaterMania's second review roundup of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
The glorious sounds of gospel take center stage in Acappella, a jukebox musical using the arrangements of the famed Christian vocal group the Acappella Company. The 14 voices onstage in the two-act production, directed by Lee Summers at PTC Performance Space, are outrageously good. When the story starts, however, problems arise.
Conceived by Greg Cooper and featuring a book by Vynnie Meli, Acappella follows Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick), a small-town lad who makes good when he wins a spot in a boy-band that subsequently sets the world on fire. But Jeremiah doesn't realize the consequences of his actions after leaving his bestie (Anthony Chatmon II) and girlfriend (Darilyn Castillo) behind. After he returns home with fame and fortune, he has to learn the hard way that life hasn't just stopped because he went away.
As for Meli's book, it never rises above cliché, and he's too content with taking dramaturgical shortcuts and easy ways out. Some of the performers, like Miche Braden and Virginia Ann Woodruff as a pair of elder stateswomen, bring believable dimensions to their characters, though overall, Summers' direction of both actors and stage movement is fairly messy.
Thankfully, the songs carry us through. Even if this brand of Jesus-praising religious music isn't a personal preference, the cast's fabulous ability to provide their own accompaniment (without instruments) is a marvel to behold.
The Calico Buffalo, running at PTC Performance Space, is a promising children's musical that teaches two very important things: tolerance and inner strength in the face of extreme adversity. Inspired by the story by E.J. Stapleton (who provides book, music, and lyrics with Peter Stopschinski), it's the tale of a calf born with bright orange spots on his skin, and how he manages to spin that potentially alienating feature into something brilliant.
With shades of Hamlet and The Lion King, The Calico Buffalo follows Borah-Boh (Zachary Infante) and his family on a journey to find an ancient buffalo goddess (Anthea Neri) who can convince the townspeople that his spots are something to be treasured, not reviled. A villain stands in their way, of course. That character is uncle Thorn (Max Wilcox), whose long-held believe is that anyone different must be disposed of.
Craig J. George directs the professional-looking production, which features a game, though very screechy, company of 10. Infante is a charismatic find in the title role, as is Brooke Shapiro as Borah-Boh's frog pal, Bittle. Rachel Rhodes-Devey brings the right amount of gravity to her role as Borah-Boh's mom, Willa-Mah.
Warm and loving, if too long by an intermission, The Calico Buffalo manages to keep the youthful audience's attention throughout, even when things take a darker turn in the second half. The pop music score is mostly pleasant, with shades of true inspiration. The book brims with jokes geared toward adults as much as kids, though it needs to have a greater focus. With the right amount of editing, this show could really find its way in the world.
A 1990s-style video game comes to life before our eyes in Claudio Quest, a winning new musical from writers Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet at Pershing Square Signature Center. The story of the existential crises posed by having to repeat the same tasks over and over (like saving a princess from an evildoer) and having your destiny controlled by outside sources (like players), it's given a thoroughly delightful tongue-in-cheek staging helmed by Avenue Q original player John Tartaglia.
At the center is Claudio (C.J. Eldred), a Mario-like hero who spends his days saving Princess Poinsettia (Lesley McKinnell) from the villainous platypus Bruiser (Andre Ward). When Claudio gets bored, he begins to wonder what his future really holds, and why, despite his best efforts, the Princess is never actually safe. But will he give up, and leave his brother, Luís (Ethan Slater) to become Player Number One?
Tartaglia directs a terrifically on-target cast. Eldred is everyone's idea of a dashing hero, while Slater is nerdy perfection. McKinnell is hilarious as the vein Poinsettia, and Lindsey Brett Carothers is a spunky tomboy as her sister, Princess Fish. Perhaps best of all is Ward, whose work and big song are so funny they make your stomach hurt.
As evident from Timothy R. Mackabee's polygon-shaped set and Leon Dobkowski's nicely pixelated costumes, the emphasis here is on the comedy of seeing a video game onstage. But Fornarola and Pailet actually have a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of the eternally on-going "fate vs. free will" argument. Claudio Quest leaves us thinking as much as we are laughing.