Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: We Love Claudio

Since their introduction, video games have played an integral role in popular culture. Through the decades, there have been iconic characters that have changed the face of the world. One of those is Super Plumber Mario. He and his gang have been spun off into an entire video game empire. It's not a secret Claudio Quest is a direct rip off of “Mario”. It's a lovely homage and a super fun musical.
With music, book, and lyrics by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet, Claudio Quest is an 8 bit adventure as Claudio and Luis, his brother and number 2, try to rescue Princess Poinsettia from the fire-breathing platypus Bruiser. But on this specific journey, Claudio has a crisis, leaving him in a place he’s never been, forcing Luis to become the hero. What Fornarola and Pailet have done was create something that is icon and exciting. They use their source material as a jumping off point, allowing those in the know to laugh and smile at the inside jokes and references. They don’t shy away from giving loving nods to their musical influences. There are a plentiful amount of cheap laughs. And the characters happen to be strong and well-rounded because they are greatly parallel to already well-rounded characters. There is no question Claudio Quest is destined for extra lives. As it stands now, audiences will continue to play along. But to make it even stronger, the book could be finessed and polished, patching up the holes only the dramaturgical nerds would pester with. First and foremost, why now are the characters having their existential crises? And are they aware they are a part of a video game? And if the rules of video games say that a player controls the characters moves, why are these players doing what they’re doing? Could it be perhaps the player or players are having their own sibling rivalry? Or are we watching video game "Toy Story"? In a campy musical, audiences tend to forgive the big questions but the rules of the Claudio Quest world are too vague to go unnoticed. But book problems aside, what Fornarola and Pailet have going for them is an incredible score. The lyrics are fun, the music is catchy, and the Broadway pop style fits the piece wonderfully. From top to bottom the numbers are brilliant. It’s doubtful you’d skip a single one if you were listening to the album. Even days later, "Claudio Saved the Day" is earworm worthy. And if you were listening closely, Fornarola and Pailet even borrowed the melody from the “Mario Theme Song" in a few numbers.
photo by Jeremy Daniel
It’s important to have an ensemble that is eager and loves the material. It’s clear that the entire ensemble was having a blast. As the titular Claudio, CJ Eldred is a superstar in the making. Eldred owns his charming demeanor, flashing the million-dollar smile on cue. Eldred also happens to have an incredible voice. If ever there was a perfect role, Claudio is tailor-made for Eldred. Though Claudio may be the title character, it’s Ethan Slater’s Luis who is the breakout star. Slater does a superb job transitioning from player number 2 to player number 1. Standing next to his costar, Eldred gets the attention, but it’s Slater who steals hearts. In this version, there are two princesses. The primary princess who always gets captured and the one who’s stuck at home, also as the other sibling. As Princess Poinsettia and Princess Fish, Lesley McKinnell and Lindsey Brett Carothers are perfect. McKinnell is the epitome of princess. Her operatic soprano is gorgeous. But while she may appear to be prim and proper on the outside, McKinnell happens to be the best comedic actor on stage. McKinnell’s timing and comedic choices are spot on. “SNL” worthy if I do say so myself. Carothers’ played the adventurous tom boy princess with ease. Carothers had wonderful chemistry with Slater. While McKinnell and Carothers may not have had the most stage time together, when they did, they stole the show. “More Than One Way” may be the highlight of the score. But if we’re talking musical number highlights, the winner goes immediately to “The Platypus Song” and the sensational Andre Ward. Ward, a musical theater veteran, gets to shine bright as the evil Bruiser. The six member ensemble had the privilege to not only to put on silly costumes and offer silly voices, they served as the heart of the show. Katie Lee Hill as Bruiser’s deadpan psychologist was a hoot. Alex Goley as the Eggplant who gets no respect was an absolute scene-stealer.
To guide the adventure, puppet master John Tartaglia did a fantastic job. Tartaglia ensured that high-energy and entertainment was at the center of the show while still maintaining the heart and integrity of the characters. Tartaglia did run into some troubles with a few things. The 8-bit world was brought into a colorful three dimensional visual explosion. But then we are introduced to the blandly named and even more visually boring Yoshi-inspired character, Y. Though the running joke Fornarola and Pailet incorporated with the thing was such a waste, the flat papier-mâchéd dino was lost next to the sensational puppets designed by Michael Schupbach and the Puppet Kitchen. Y looked like a rejected mockup from the Triassic Parq garbage bin. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski were vibrant and brilliant. They are a true selling point of the show. But in a world of color, Bruiser’s brown was deadening. Even his inspiration Bowser is a little more colorful.
Claudio Quest will be played over and over again. There is something greatly special about this show. But it’s not perfect. There are too many band aids distracting from the problems. While you can only hope that the book gets fixed before the next stop on the quest for theater domination, it’s inevitable that Claudio and friends are here to stay.