A plethora of red, white, and blue pom-poms. A lengthy tap specialty. Extravagant dance and movement routines that might have been lifted straight out of Las Vegas acts. And all of this in a musical about the Jonestown massacre? By the time the song "Don't Mess With The USA" comes around in Jonestown: The Musical, you've long ceased to be surprised by anything.
The performer leading the song, Robert Creighton, is one of the few true joys of this ferociously bipolar Fringe Festival offering. Playing Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to investigate Jim Jones's cultish Guyana settlement in 1978 and did not return alive, Creighton brings bushels of Golden Age show-biz appeal to his portrayal, throwing off an endless series of corny self-referential jokes, goofy songs, and parodic dance steps with the same conviction he brought to Funny Girl's Eddie Ryan and Guys and Dolls's Nicely-Nicely Johnson, both at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.
But the infectious energy of Creighton's work won't stop you from wondering why so much energetic, musical-comedy razzmatazz has been injected into a chronicle of the tragic deaths of over 900 people at the behest of Reverend Jim Jones. And from the show's opening minutes to its closing scene, you'll find that question inescapable, as it's not one authors Brian Silliman (book and lyrics) and Larry Lees (music and lyrics) ever see fit to truly address.
Consider it, if you will, a byproduct of the Urinetown Effect: How fun a musical can be extracted from impossibly dire subject matter? Despite the fervent efforts of Silliman, Lees, and the production's director and choreographer Sara Lampert Hoover to make the show a provocative and entertaining look at the tragedy in specific and groupthink in general, the results here remain firmly entrenched in horrifyingly bad taste. The most egregious example is that the deaths of Jones's followers are depicted in a comic disco number called "Funky Kool-Aid," but that the number appears not at all shocking in context only demonstrates how deep in the muck Jonestown is already mired.
Silliman and Lees were apparently aiming for a concept musical along the lines of Cabaret or Follies, in which certain numbers comment on the action rather than participate in it directly. Certainly all of Creighton's numbers, as well as the first-act finale "The Greatest Show on Earth," a demented circus staged for Leo's benefit, support this theory. So does the bloated (and, at over 15 minutes in length, interminable) show-trial finale, in which the massacre's sole survivor examines the extent of an individual's complicity in any group tragedy.
This sequence, more than any other, highlights Jonestown's most significant failing: Silliman and Lees don't know what their concept is. The book and score vacillate so rapidly between pop-opera seriousness and vaudeville-style shenanigans that the creators never get around to asking the questions the show-trial sequence (coyly listed as "The End of the Musical" in the program) seems designed to answer. It instead feels like an act of desperation, something - anything - that could be thrown in to give the show a whiz-bang ending.
Real concept shows can't get away with this: Things like Love Life's minstrel show and Follies' "Loveland" exist because they have to. And this is one problem no amount of frenetic staging from Hoover, lively music (under Michael Patrick Walker's musical direction), or attractive physical elements (Richard B. Williams did the sets, Stephen Petrilli the lighting, and Malisa Bowman the costumes) can fix. Jonestown is likely to remain confusing and unconvincing as long as its disparate elements intermingle in ways as jagged as they do here.
At least this is one of the best-populated musicals you're likely to see at the Fringe this year, with Broadway stars Matt Cavenaugh, J. Mark McVey, and Marla Schaffel joining Creighton and a high-powered chorus. McVey brings a real preacher's passion and a heavy-duty voice to Jones, and Schaffel, as Jones's wife, gets to display hefty comedy chops that were underutilized in her otherwise tour-de-force performance in Jane Eyre. As Jones's central disciple Samuel, Cavenaugh plays his role more or less straight, but never ineffectively, and he's quite believable as a troubled youth searching for meaning.
Should Silliman and Lees wish to take Jonestown further, they would be well advised to undertake a similar search. They're obviously talented, and if this show plays like an uneasy combination of Nunsense and Les MisÚrables, its songs are melodic, catchy, and memorable across a range of musical-theatre styles. But, unsurprisingly, most of these songs never ideally fit the material; that would require that Silliman and Lees first decide exactly what kind of musical they're trying to write.
New York International Fringe Festival