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I'll Be Damned

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kurt Robbins, Kenita Miller, and Jacob Hoffman
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The next time someone says, "The devil's not your friend!", you may want to point to Jaradoa Theater's new musical at the Vineyard Theatre, I'll Be Damned. In it, a terminally lonely, 19-year-old homeschool graduate named Louis finds that the person in all of the universe who understands him best is Satan himself. This is despite Louis's also being God's favorite human, the only reason He didn't send down another flood to wipe the slate clean years ago.

Believe it or not, that's the premise of Rob Broadhurst and Brent Black's flimsy but harmless evening. This well-meaning morality tale puts enough new twists on the familiar stories of the dork gone right and the creator making peace with his created to please in a general way. It's obviously less ideal for the more religious, who may think that proposing Satan as the better alternative to God, the Vatican, and Mom (not necessarily in that order) is, well, blasphemous.

The show itself is innocent enough, however, that you never seriously believe that message is really the one composer-librettist Broadhurst and lyricist-librettist Black meant to send. A lively production, spryly directed by April Nickell and choreographed by Luis Salgado, only spreads the word about inclusiveness being the best way to come closer to your family, your friends, and yourself.

Still, there's a lot to chip through. I'll Be Damned is rife with the kind of arch coyness that suggests musical comedy more in the vein of The Producers and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee than Guys and Dolls and suggests that to present believable people onstage is the height of squaredom. Louis (Jacob Hoffman), wearing heavy glasses and short pants, is every bit the home-kept, socially unspoiled (in every sense) nerd. Mom (Mary Testa) is the immovable domestic warden, who deploys warmth only as a restraining tactic. And she's determined to keep him at home for four more years and away from the "real boy college" he so desperately desires.

The smarmy attitude overlaying all this doesn't make it easy to accept these as real concerns, or to locate enough anguished depth within Louis that you'd believe someone as smart as he is would sign over his soul to the devil (Kurt Robbins) in exchange for one friend. Broadhurst and Black spend a lot more time waxing Faustian, but never raise the stakes high enough. Because the writers treat him so often as a joke, Louis never seems important enough to be the chief concern of both Heaven (God is played, with a sniffy air of annoyance, by Gregory Treco) and Hell.

Far more convincing is the subplot, in which the devil brings to life Louis's comic-book creation, the superheroine Friendetta (Kenita R. Miller), to use her magical powers to find Louis a soul mate, but which finds Louis falling for her instead. This Pygmalion model proves much more apt and affecting an anchor for the action, in part because of Miller's genial, spark-plug performance that makes Wonder Woman look like a weakling, and in part because it forces Louis to confront and overcome the inadequacies he's let stand between him and his goals for far too long.

Not enough of this conflict is represented in the score - Broadhurst and Black waste time with time-wasters like an overextended trio of first-act numbers that dully document Louis's quest for friendship, a rave in Hell, a rave-up Up There (the predictably generic gospel "Let It Rain"), and a comedy song about the Vatican. "Alone" for dual lost souls Satan and Louis, and "Nobody's Hero" for Miller and Testa to muse on their evolving roles in Louis's life, are the only moments of genuine feeling, when the drama seems legitimate rather than lacquered.

Jacob Hoffman and Mary Testa
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Hoffman's energetic but emotionally false performance only adds to the artificial atmosphere; his costars are much more successful. Robbins plays Satan entirely straight, and thus sympathetically - he's the nicest, most fraternal Prince of Darkness you could ever hope to meet. Miller's cartoon-realistic bravura is just right for her larger-than-life character, and her Friendetta is always a delight. Testa is a combination of the three: heartfelt, consistently funny, and "out there" enough that you have no choice but to accept her version of reality as the accurate one.

I'll Be Damned doesn't blend its own styles as well, and seldom manages Testa's trick of being entertaining and enlightening at the same time. That it usually manages to be solidly one or the other is hardly nothing, but it's not enough to wrench a completely winning musical from this loser-oriented story. If the devil really is in the details, it's the incessantly broad strokes that make it almost impossible for us to see them.

I'll Be Damned
Through July 18
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets and performance schedule at:

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