Friday, July 29, 2016

Review: Do the Scrabble Hustle

By Michael Block

Ever wonder how a Joni Mitchell song and Scrabble can inspire the plot of a musical? Take in an evening at Brett Sullivan's The Last Word and you'll see how! The Last Word pays homage to a decade in a 70’s slacker musical comedy where nothing beats the power of friendship.
With book, music, and lyrics by Brett Sullivan, and additional lyrics by Ryan Cunningham, The Last Word follows Jay Subasinghe who is on the verge of losing the family Indian restaurant, Paradise, to parking lot mogul Earlene Floyd. If he doesn’t come up with the money to save the restaurant, Earlene is going to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. GET IT?! Jay and his buddies Neil and Benny decide the only way to get the money is to play a little Scrabble. Sounds logical, right? Along the way they pick up their former friend Carl who now goes by Carlise and Santine, Jay’s sister, and Neil’s lifelong crush. The Last Word is a story of friendship. That’s the draw here. And it’s fun! But do we really care about this story? Likely not. The Last Word is a colorful musical that certainly knows what it is. The book though, can use some cleaning up. Thanks to the style of comedy Sullivan is going for, there are some farfetched plot lines and some plot holes as big as potholes on Route 66. But they are easily fixable dramaturgical bits. The Last Word takes the 70’s and allows it to live but the Americana factor could be amped up. This is a nostalgia piece. Even if you weren’t around during the decade, there’s something recognizable. And that’s where the fun comes in. But Sullivan’s greatest challenge is making the story and characters as strong as the score. Structurally, Sullivan can finesse the script and perhaps shrink it to a single act musical. But if the two act is necessary, ending the act with an Earlene song is dire. Jay and Co. may have been featured in it but they should have been the focal point. The song can stay and maybe begin Act II. It has shades of “Whipped Into Shape” from Legally Blonde.
photo by Clayton Jacobson
The production value of The Last Word was spot on. The 70’s inspired set from Elizabet Puksto featured an epic Scrabble board floor. It was fun and effectively got the job done. The costumes from Christopher Vegara were period yet they didn’t feel like costumes. Michael Bellow had a strong vision for his creative team and his actors. His direction was precise, for the most part. He allowed the story, however convoluted it may be, to shine through, The laughs came inherently and the sentimentality was genuine. If there was one thing he could have had a stronger conviction of was the use of the sign boy. Andreas Wyder, the silent ensemble member, would walk in and place a sign or walk out with another. Bellow needed to turn this into a bit. The other problem Bellow faced was having his actors punch the important plot lines. They were punched to the point of lacking all trust in the audience. If the fear of the story is a prime concern, perhaps that’s a sign that the script needs great assistance. The space at The Duke was a bit tight yet chroegrapher Nick Kenkel managed to make it feel like a Broadway stage. The choreography was exceptional. It was filled with energy, containing odes to the decade.
Through the characters were a bit thin, there were some strong performances in the company. Travis Kent as straight edge Neil Jackson was the star of the show. Kent’s voice soared from start to finish. He crafted a fun character that was never annoying. When you have a role ripe for a scene-stealer, casting a scene-stealer is everything Felicia Finley made every second count as the evil Earlene. MJ Rodriguez had the bite as Carlise but there were times where the music didn’t sit perfectly in her voice, taking the tenacity away from the character. But Rodriguez was on point in the book scenes. As Jay, Nathan Lucrezio had the swagger of Lin-Manuel Miranda with the sound of Anthony Rapp. Whether it was the unlikeable character or limited choices, Lucrezio faded into the background. That’s usually not a great place for a central character.
The Last Word had some mighty high highs and some mighty low lows. Despite this, it’s a show that has a strong future. Brett Sullivan and his musical have a lot going for them. A little dramaturgical assistance may do the trick.