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WikiMusical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

WikiMusical
Trey Harrington and Perry Sherman.
Photo by Billy Bustamante

Though they based their New York Musical Theatre Festival entry on a profound idea, Frank Ceruzzi, Blake J. Harris, and Trent Jeffords for some reason want you to think WikiMusical is shallow. You may surmise, based on the title, that it would involve Wikipedia, the ultimate site for democratized knowledge on the Internet, and to an extent you’d be right. But it spends so much of its time immersed in memes (mostly involving cats, naturally), blogging, spam, Silicon Valley magnates, search engines, and video games that most of the time it plays more as a general-purpose, general-audience technology musical, no more distinctive than, well, most of the handmade sites on the World Wide Web circa 1997.

This lack of focus cripples lyricist-librettists Ceruzzi and Harris and composer Jeffords, because it detracts them from honing in on their actual, considerably more compelling, point. Specifically that, when you come right down to it, success or failure on the Internet — as in life — is all about trust, and you can never be absolutely sure whom to trust. As useful as Wikipedia can be at directing research, it’s impossible to know exactly who’s editing which articles, and thus whether the information is accurate or merely looks like it. So “learning” something from reading about it there doesn’t actually mean you’ve learned anything, a problem that could have drastic (and devastating) consequences on education and society in the years to come.

The writers touch on this specifically, but filter the same lessons through the strained relationship of adult brothers Kurt (Trey Harrington) and Peter (Perry Sherman). Though they were the closest of friends when young, they had a falling out when Peter caught Kurt having sex with Peter’s fiancée. (Okay, that’s maybe not the worst of reasons.) So when they reunite — against their will — for Christmas with their parents, it’s a tense situation, and one that’s not made better by Mom announcing she’s neither Jewish nor their biological mother (as they’ve both always believed) and Dad revealing that he’s gay. Which, of course, sends both men’s reality crashing down on them.

Or does it? If Wikipedia can be changed in an instant, isn’t it possible for the sturdiest foundations of our existence to be as well? It’s a fascinating notion that, in itself, might make a dizzying musical, as Peter and Kurt struggle against the (literally) changing winds of time and space to reclaim their identities and understand what facts are (or perhaps force them to be so). But Wikimusical gets tied up in silly legends and prophecies surrounding an ancient Gateway computer that transports the pair into the Internet, where they meet up with a pretty and enterprising blogger named Jacqui (Alison Novelli), and where they find themselves warring with the vicious Spam King (an unpredictably on-point Brenda Braxton), who wants to reshape the ‘Net in, uh, his own image.

The performers, particularly Harrington and the plaintively appealing Novelli, are appealing. Paul Tate dePoo III’s sets, Olivia Sebesky’s projections, and Scott Westervelt’s costumes more than match the scattered creativity of the script and score. And, being a hardcore computer aficionado myself, and having a strong grasp of modern technological history, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t greatly amused by certain aspects of the show, especially the final scenes, which pack in a bewildering amount of name-dropping to lend real authenticity to the obscurities on which it rhapsodizes.

But the action is painfully cluttered, with good ideas (a “quest” involving the correction of false statements in Wikipedia) forever tilting against bad ones (a song called “A Kittens’ History of the Internet,” which is exactly what you’d imagine), and creaky notions that appear to have been dropped in from other shows altogether receiving for more stage time than they deserve. Chief among those is a bizarre subplot involving Morgan Freeman, a major supporting character (and played, with authoritative gusto, if no attempt at precise imitation, by Darius Harper), whose ultimate fate inspires a frantic production number that pushes the most of director-choreographer Richard J. Hinds’s skills in the depths of the second act. It’s well done, but must the show stop dead for it? And what does it have to do with anything?

Nothing — which is both the point and the problem. You sense that the writers are trying to demonstrate the Internet’s hastening the fragmentation of our society, our art, and our very minds by throwing thousands of ideas at us, and not really expecting any to stick longer than this Upworthy clickbait page or that politically provocative Facebook image. And at that, they unquestionably succeed. But that strategy is not powerful, cohesive, or inventive enough to result in a solid musical — some basic rules of drama simply cannot be ignored. Yes, there are reasons to appreciate and sympathize with the Peter and Kurt’s plotline, and even hope for their eventual reunion. But in the too-sweeping panorama that is Wikimusical, their plight doesn’t seem any more pressing than the latest Buzzfeed quiz.


The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
WikiMusical
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nymf.org