Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: A Broken Jukebox Musical

By Michael Block 

Ah the jukebox musical. It holds a special place in my heart. I'm a fan of the genre. That is when it's down well and a songbook I appreciate. But sometimes a lesser-known act gets the jukebox treatment for a musical cacophony. Say hell to alternative rock band Ludo. I've never done acid but I could imagine that Ludo's Broken Bride is close to an acid trip.
Ludo's Broken Bride is a Jukebox musical using the songbook of alt rock band Ludo with the concept rich opera as the centerpiece. Adapted by Stacey Weingarten, with additional story by Dana Levinson, Ludo's Broken Bride is part 80's time travel rock opera that introduces dinosaurs, a dead wife, dancing skeletons, and a post apocalyptic world. Among other things. Sadly, this musical is a conceptually overwrought rock musical begging for guidance to be pared down and focused. The pigeonholed plot is convoluted at best. Weingarten's storytelling is painful. When trying to incorporate a plethora of themes, ideas, and characters from the band's lyrics into a narrative, she tries to do far too much. But don't get me wrong, this show looks good. Individually. It's visually eclectic yet completely unfocused. Let's start with the story. A man named Tom finds himself stuck in a dinosaur-laden prehistoric world after failing to go to the night to rescue his bride from her untimely death. As he tries to find a way back to the future, we watch, through flashback, the romance of Tom and Oriel. Suddenly when Tom and his new pal Hawkin manage to make some progress on the time machine, they drop into an apocalyptic future world run by Kin Simius and his skeletons. Will Tom and Oriel ever be reunited? And just how far will he go to get her back? The theatrical device Weingarten inserts is splitting the character of Tom. You have time Traveler Tom and Flashback Tom. Oh and dance Tom. Why!!! I suppose they couldn't chose who to cast as Tom so they picked both. But The Flashback version was far superior. But more on that later. Whether it was Weingarten backing herself into inescapable plot corners and down giant plot holes, the story got so outrageous that there were bits that had little explanation or set up that caused confusion. How does exactly does Tom get from prehistoric dino land to post apocalyptic skeletal nightmare? A malfunctioning time device that is summed up in one screaming line that you likely missed. And then the 80s? Why so much time in that flashback? Likely so Weingarten could use certain songs. The themes of love and loss are at the forefront but they get so swept up by the ridiculousness that it's all for naught. When it comes to the music, as someone unfamiliar with Ludo, the show succeeded in getting me to want to explore their songbook. There are some exceptional songs. They have a unique sound that's typical for their genre and time. But Ludo's Broken Bride should be applauded for the absolutely sensational orchestrations by Dana Levinson. It happens often with jukebox musicals. Taking one sound and bringing it into a new medium takes great skill and care. Levinson brilliantly musicalized Ludo for the even better.
Ludo's Broken Bride is lively and energetic with some nice visuals but that only gets you so far. Co-directed by Donna Drake and book writer Stacey Weingarten, the staging is static. The frenetic style of storytelling was hard to follow, especially with the clarity of lyrics not being such a strong point. Conceptually, individual aspects worked but as a cohesive block, not so much. For example, who was the dude with in the band rafters? Aside from Larry Hamilton's glorious vocal, what was his role in the overall picture? A night terror number that brought vivacity came in Act I and then King Simius was never heard from until the apocalypse arrives. How are they connected? Who the hell knows. Even with the outrageousness of plot, Drake and Weingarten needed to unit Ludo's world. The puppets from Sierra Schoening were quite fun. But those swinging dinos? What were they thinking! Just how Drake and Weingarten used them, allowing the actors to have them soar, run off stage, and return just so it coincides with the lyric, seemed superfluous and quite obnoxious. The parade of costumes designed by Bree Perry featured some extraordinary ideas, like the skeletons, and some epic fails. The puppeteer blacks anyone?
photo by Jeremy Daniel Photo
Commitment was evident from start to finish. This company dove into this world and embarked on an adventure most actors never get to go on. By far, the star of the show was Brian Charles Rooney as the skeleton king King Simius. The man is the epitome of brilliant character actor. Even if you haven't seen his previous work, the care that he takes to craft an individual character is memorizing. Vocally, the acrobatics he performed captured the essence of the world. Like Rooney, Marissa O’Donnell was segregated to a bit part that showcased her powerhouse ability to belt. Her 80s character of Mena had much more of a necessity to the overall arc unlike her moment as the Mayor. The battle of the Toms likely has some champions on either side but Michael Jayne Walker was the overall stronger performer, through character and voice. Not only did his vocals fit the Ludo score, he had charisma for days. Why he couldn't play both parts, seeing as this character was the sole split character, is a big question mark. When you can handle a puppet and allow yourself to melt away, you've won. Brendan Malafronte was a winner. The noises that came from him were comical, playful, and a whole lotta fun. Playing the primary Tom, Carson Higgins was fine. His voice didn’t sit in the score as well as some of his cast mates. Though doubled in character, Gabrielle McClinton had very little to do aside from being the typical love-interest in Oriel. McClinton and Higgins lacked the spark to truly drive this story forward. And isn’t that the reason why we’re on this epic journey?
Ludo’s Broken Bride is destined to be a cult classic. Those who are superfans of Ludo’s will follow in masses. But those superfans have likely already crafted a stage adaptation that is probably better than Stacey Weingarten’s. Ludo’s Broken Bride is interesting and ambitious. A book musical it may not want to be, this music will likely be sticking around in some incarnation.