Scenic magician David Korins has provided endless vistas of stocked store shelves and insets of hotel rooms and offices that slide about as though they’re weekend sale displays. Miranda Hoffman has outfitted the show’s cast of 11 in a veritable fashion department of outfits ranging from those ubiquitous blue vests to sequined gowns and even pseudo-futuristic daywear. Leah Gelpe has crafted an elaborate series of 3D projections and film clips that keep the stage’s vertical space churning with high-tech life throughout.
When I first encountered Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn’s Wisconsin-born musical in last year’s Fringe Festival, much of this filigree was absent. The show relied heavily on its performers to establish a Threepenny Opera-like atmosphere of capitalistic oppression and corporate surrealism, making the danger both more ephemeral and more real. Plus, its cast of unpolished unknowns brought such naked enthusiasm to their portrayals, you were rooting for them to succeed just as you were rooting for the central figures, mother and daughter Vicki and Maia Latrell to take down the viral department store giant.
The center of the story remains Vicki’s quest for respect and remuneration commensurate with her five-year tenure at Wal-Mart, against sexist managers and indistinguishable executives who are all too happy with the status quo. Her protestations get her and Maia thrust into a time portal, and the two reappear in a Wal-Mart-controlled dystopia 30 years down the line, where they’re facing an uphill battle but are willing to risk everything to make their complaint global and permanent.
To help clarify their struggle, the book and the score have been edited, streamlined, and jazzed up, though seldom noticeably or for the better. The bad guys have been given gleefully bulging doses of Brecht to make them less diabolical and less unpredictable, but considerably more entertaining; one of the new highlights is an exhilarating, and extraneous, vaudevillian duet (with spirited choreography by Wendy Seyb) called “The Future Is Ours” for company CEO Scott Smiley (John Jellison) and in-house mad scientist Doctor Normal (Stephen DeRosa). The bitterly ironic but beautiful pageant song “A Woman’s Place” has been transformed into a broadly unsatisfying burlesque outing with its use of men in its ensemble.
When the performers themselves excite, it’s usually only temporarily: Maia has been beefed up a bit since last year, but not enough to give the dynamic James a proper showcase for her prodigious vocal or dance talents; Brennen Leath sings a couple of impressive solos as drone-and-loving-it Darin, but is frequently lost smarming it up in the background; and Pearl Sun’s blaring belt of a voice and keen comic talent are mostly wasted in her second-act turn as an authoritarian security guard. Freeman strolls through her role as if pondering choices in the breakfast cereal aisle, and usually seems more like a mannequin than a magnetic lead.
Of course, this show has always been less about its characters than about taking Wal-Mart to task for predatory pricing practices and worldwide expansion many claim are destroying small towns’ unique characters and economies. You have to chisel through so much chintz to get to that core now, one can’t help but wonder if the creators of Walmartopia learned too many wrong lessons while striving to teach us the right ones.