Directed by John Tartaglia
Book/Music/Lyrics by Drew Fornarola & Marshall Pailet
Choreography by Shannon Lewis
THE VERDICT: Exuberant and charming, Claudio Quest hits every gag and laugh it can and occasionally even bares its pixelated heart. And a musical semi-based on the Super Mario Brothers ends up even having some touching moments about the pits and bonds between siblings–go figure. The comedy is polished and steeped in video game references, and the catchy music is littered with beeps and bloops. But the show won’t alienate you if you’ve never picked up a Nintendo controller. And bonus points for the hard working ensemble that jump into every other classic game character’s shoes–from plucky eggplant denizens to “Bruiser’s” baddies.
There’s a natural obstacle to this kind of musical–how do you make electronic characters feel real? The heroes and villains are likable and memorable, but for a story that hinges on the rules of a video game world, it’s too bad that the show mostly winks at its source material rather than really exploring what it’s like to be a character in a video game world.
Here’s your point-by-point breakdown:
- DIRECTION: Tartaglia polishes every joke to a sheen and throws down some inventive staging that would fit right at home in an arcade cabinet. He massages every scrap of fun you could hope for out of the script, though high-stakes moments sometimes feel a bit flimsy and unsustained.
- MUSIC: Big, catchy, and genuine, with simple orchestration and a get-it-done simplicity. Fornarola and Pailet are at their best when the score matches the sense of adventure.
- LYRICS: Fornarola and Pailet craft a well-oiled joke machine–the lyrics pack on the wit but rely a bit heavily on clever allusions and once-and-done gags.
- BOOK: See Lyrics. The book (also by Fornarola and Pailet) is minimal and mostly there to jump from song to song, though one drawn-out moment stands out: When the Claudio Brothers take a second to wonder what free will means in a world controlled by a player. It’s the most thoughtful moment in the show and hits a pensive note the like of which is not found anywhere else.
- Timothy R. Mackabee’s spare scenic design is smartly made to be modular: The set pieces are shuffled about to create a variety of video game levels and evoke the blocky style of 80’s video games.
- Leon Dobkowski’s costumes suggest spoofs on video game characters more than they establish their own style, but they work well in keeping the heroes, villains, minions and townspeople clearly marked out.
- Matt Kraus’s sound design works–the 80’s style sound bytes are lovingly crafted and peppered throughout the show, giving old-school game fans lots to be nostalgic about.
- Puppet Kitchen Productions provides surprisingly limber and very evocative puppets that fill out the strange world inside the game cartridge–and give the ensemble the chance to steal some shows.
WHAT IT’LL GET NOMINATED FOR:
- EXCELLENCE IN OVERALL DESIGN: The design works hard to create a convincing video game-esque world, completely with on-point minion puppetry, clever set manipulation, and lighting effects that make you almost see the pixels.
- BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: For Andre Ward, playing “Bruiser.” The “final boss” of the game, and he clearly works for the title. He lands the best choreography number in the show (proclaiming his love for the princess he captures weekly) and garners deserved belly laughs with the best take-it-one-step-further video game nod in the show: Working out his villainous issues with a therapist. (Makes you feel bad for the boss.)
- BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: For Lesley McKinnel, playing “Princess Poinsetta.” Her comedic inspiration is kind of impeccable, and her depiction of the damsel in distress relishes in the cliche and finds humor and heart where you’d never expect it.
- EXCELLENCE IN WRITING (MUSIC): Much like a catchy gaming tune, you don’t realize how much you’re enjoying the score while you listen to it, and then you find yourself involuntarily humming it. Nintendo fans will catch lots of little homages and nods.
WHAT IT CAN WIN:
- BEST OF FEST AUDIENCE AWARD: It’s a lovable, very funny show.
- BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: For Andre Ward. An excellent (video game) character actor.
WHERE IT’LL GO:
It’s such a specific kind of show–it’s so much fun, but I wonder if any other creative team would work as hard to pay as much loving homage to video games as this team does. As funny and charming as the show is, I think it’d need a tad more under its emotional hood to really soar. I’d love to see those few and lovely thoughtful moments where characters consider their siblings and their world to be expanded and deepened, so that underneath all the smirking comedy is some real, hard-wired heart. But as it stands, it could have a home in any theater that needs a solid comedy with a unique schtick, and it’d freshen up any regional theater’s usual repertoire.