Terrorism, compulsive cleanliness, mind reading, and melons? Let it never be said that musical comedy can't bring together any eclectic group of elements in search of laughs, but this combination - at the heart of How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes at the Fringe Festival - is one of the more bizarre to hit the New York stage in recent memory.
This outlandish, anything-for-a-joke attitude works both for and against this show, which has a book by Jonathan Karp and music by Seth Weinstein. You're always kept on your toes, and it's impossible not to be taken aback by the combination of ideas onstage. At the same time, one must wonder how the show might play if the writers were forced to develop their ideas into one distinct style, instead of being allowed to accept this agglutination of so many others.
As it currently stands, How to Save the World...'s comic potpourri is diverse almost to the point of desperation, while its structure and basic feel aren't much different from those in countless other musicals. Miraculously, the show itself, which has been infused with a madcap energy by director David H. Bell, manages to never break a sweat; the same can't be said for the show's impressive six-person cast, but that's only because they all work so hard, though their energy never feels misapplied.
The show's story finds Miles (Michael McEachran), a United Nations tour guide, attracted to his sexy yet unattainable co-worker Violet (Nicole Ruth Snelson) while ignoring his good friend, the available Julie (Anika Larsen). An attempt to impress Violet by confronting a group of violent melon farmers lands Miles in a food fight, and when he awakens from his produce-induced unconsciousness, he discovers he possesses the ability to read others' minds. Delving into Violet's thoughts, he discovers she knows about an imminent terrorist attack on the U.N., but isn't talking; this leaves Miles alone in a position to save the U.N. and the world.
But despite the crazy trappings in which the central love story is wrapped, this is a very conventional show that unfolds in generally obvious ways. There's never, for example, much doubt as to which woman Miles will finally end up with, nor is there ever a reason to believe he won't eventually become the man he's always wanted to be. With Miles's primary establishing song called "I'm Afraid of Everything," isn't he required by the musical comedy handbook (if not the BMI Workshop) to have a major turnabout of character?
The score itself is safe almost to the point of qualifying for the Witness Protection Program, and often at odds with the thoroughly unconventional and always inventive book. The music strikes a nice balance between contemporary pop stylings and musical-theatre variety, but Karp's lyrics, while not poorly crafted (though they frequently employ the quasi-Sondheimian method of multiple rhymes for no real reason), never go anywhere but the expected places. A look at the song titles "The Voices in My Head," "Love Is," "I Want to Know You," and "Read My Mind" tells you just about all you need to know.
This means that the only real suspense How to Save the World... ever generates is by causing you to wonder what strange twists on the by-the-numbers story will pop up next. Will the Greek chorus - Trent Armand Kendall, Robb Sapp, and Dorrey Lin Lyles - show up as Spanish waiters, practitioners of Zen meditation, or a gospel revival chorus? (The answer is all three.) Since the terrorist, Violet's boyfriend and a neat freak, is also played by McEachran, how will Bell's staging accommodate both characters onstage at the same time? (In a breathless comic tour de force, as it turns out.) Questions about the characters themselves never seem remotely as relevant.
The actors playing them are strong, at least. McEachran is almost unstoppable, with an energy so limitless that it seems like it could power New York for a year. Whether rattling off the names of countries in quick succession in a song (think of a less tongue-twisting "Tschaikowsky"), or fighting himself to the death in the show's climactic scene, he's got a great gift for acting, singing, and comedy. (Perhaps, though, he has too much to do? His singing voice grows increasingly ragged as the evening goes on.) Snelson is a lithe, sensual beauty with a killer comic sense herself, and Larsen does nicely as the more down-to-Earth, spiritual woman in Miles's life, though her character is the least developed onstage. The three chorus members each get multiple chances to prove they're worthy stars themselves.
Still, the show's most central force - for better or worse - is its unpredictable predictability. The details of the trip on which How to Save the World... takes you never fail to delight and surprise. It just might be nice if the same could be said about the show's story and structure.
2004 New York International Fringe Festival