I'll get this out of the way first - despite the phrases "World Premiere!" and "Opening Night" used to describe this show, and the full priced tickets the audience bought, this is not a show that is ready to open. I don't know why there wasn't a preview period, but what stress must have been caused to all involved to have the first public performance ever be both opening night and press night as well. I hesitate to just say "it's a mess" and stop there, because they plan to work extensively with the show over the next three weeks. But I do question the fairness to the audience for presenting a work-in-progress as a full price premiere. There may very well be a worthy show buried in the current version of Casper the Musical and hopefully it can be found, so it's definitely worth critiquing the plusses and minuses of the show as seen on opening night.
The very first Casper the Musical ran on London's West End for about two months in early 2000. The show has been completely rewritten, so nothing remains of the London work save the title and the set. The current show workshopped at CMU this spring, but Tuesday's performance was the first public performance. The characters of Casper and his uncles, Fatso, Stinky, and Stretch, are based on those in the classic Harvey Comics comic books. The story is new and not based on the recent feature film.
In Casper the Musical, Casper (Paul Tiesler) and his three uncles (LaParee Young, Jamie Torcellini, and Tim Hartman) are ghosts living in Casper's house. They can't "cross over" because Casper is waiting for his parents to return. Before Casper's father left, 50 years previously, he gave Casper the deed to the house, but Casper has forgotten where it is, and the house is set to be demolished by the government to build a highway. Everyone wants to find the deed - there are several reasons for this, but they are not all terribly clear. Magdalena Monteverde (Chita Rivera) is a radio host who wants the deed for a treasure she thinks she will find. She sets up a "reality show" style contest for kids, hoping they will find the deed and she can then take it. The kids in the house at night with the ghosts, the interference of the government representatives, Casper's search for a friend, and the conniving antics of Magdalena are jumbled together throughout the rest of the show.
It takes much too long to setup the plot in this show. It's not that complicated; things can move along more quickly. There is an attempt to provide contemporary dialog and situations to entertain the kids in the audience while also providing more "adult" humor for the people who drove the kids to the theatre. Sometimes it's better to not try to be too many things. Some of the adult humor, as present in Magdalena's song "Dot Com," a second act opener serving the purpose of showcasing Chita, is clever but bordering on inappropriate ("turn your software to hardware"?). It is a thrill to see Chita slink and do Fosse-like moves, but really her presence and mannerisms are entertainment enough without overt lyrics that she seems uncomfortable at times delivering. She even has her buff "boys" who follow her, worship her, and carry her around.
Many plot points collide, and some are left dangling at the end (or are unclear enough to appear to be dangling), but the story's heart is in the right place. Casper has never gotten over losing his parents and he's never had a relationship with anyone to relieve the loneliness he feels and to allow him to "cross over".
It is very difficult these days to provide dialog that will not sound corny to today's savvy younger audience, but book writers Stephen Cole and David H. Bell seem to know how to do it, with the right buzz words, topical references, and characterizations (well, the surfer dude may be a little outdated). Of course, those buzz words will be corny in a few months, so some things will have to be kept up to date to hold the kids' respect. With over a dozen songs by Matthew Ward, Cole and Bell, there is room to trim the list to tighten the show. Some, like "Fifteen Minutes of Fame," work very well. Others, like "He's a Nerd," miss in a major way.
The sets are simple and barely adequate; a multi-sided revolving center piece provides different walls/doorways for different settings. The special effects are surprisingly amateurish. Flying wires and harnesses are far too obvious and the few pyrotechnics are not effective. The sole successful special effect scene, that of a row of dancing ghosts who were invisible except for their feet, fizzled when spotlights ruined the secret. An interesting costuming choice was made - to dress the actors playing ghosts all in white clothes, with white or lightened hair. Black socks are meant to represent the fact that they have no feet. Along with the poorly executed flying sequences, these ghosts seemed to be low-budget.
Did I mention Chita is wonderful? She is wonderful and she is gorgeous and very able to perform the required dance movements. But with Chita set to do The Visit soon, this part will have to be recast after the summer run, if it continues. There aren't too many actresses of her age (and the age of the character is pertinent to the plot) who can pull off what Chita can. And the adult nature of her character's contribution may be even more squirm-inducing with another actress.
As Casper, Tiesler is certainly cute and appealing; hopefully he'll open up a little more as the run continues. He didn't appear to quite have the voice for the songs he is given, but perhaps that was due to opening night nerves. The three uncles are the clowns of the show. Jamie Torcellini, as Stinky, stands out as a comedic actor, singer, and dancer. The government representatives (Laurie Gamache and Leo Ash Evens) are good, Gamache in particular, but if you're looking to simplify the plot, these two characters are expendable. The kids in the ensemble are fine. Mitchell Jarvis (though cast way too old) and Anika Bobb stood out as talented singers.
Casper the Musical needs work - a good amount of work. But it can possibly emerge as a pleasant, contemporary children's musical. In his exuberant pre-show talk, Executive Producer Van Kaplan told the audience members to come back and see the show again (and again) during its three week run. That might be an interesting thing to do, but the CLO should be offering twofers or family prices for this work in progress.
Casper the Musical presented by the Pittsburgh CLO. Directed by David H. Bell. Book & Lyrics by Stephen Cole & David H. Bell. Music by Matthew Ward with additional music by Henry Marsh. Developed by Van Kaplan. Starring Chita Rivera, Paul Tiesler, Tim Hartman, Jamie Torcellini, LaParee Young, Laurie Gamache, Mitchell Jarvis, Gaelen Gilliland, Tina Johnson, Cynthia Thomas. With Anika Bobb, Gerard Canonico, Leo Ash Evens, Bernard J. Eyth, Kristen Graeber, and Courtney Neville. Scenic Design by Terry Parsons. Lighting Design by John McLain. Costume Design by Barbara Anderson. Sound Design by Christopher M. Evans. Choreographer David H. Bell.
Appearing at the Benedum Center through June 24. The show moves on to Kansas City, Atlanta, and Dallas. To purchase tickets, call (412) 456-6666 or visit the CLO Website. More information available at CasperMusical.com