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Claudio Quest
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

CJ Eldred
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A big, blinking, question mark–shaped block hangs over Claudio Quest, the musical by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet that's being performed as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. So allow me to bash it with my rapidly rising, upward-pointed fist: Why?

Why draw inspiration for a musical parodied from a 30-year-old video game (Nintendo's Super Mario Bros., just in case you really needed the help), when the real deal has been sequelized, filmed, animated, and parodied so many times that there's nothing left to say? And if you're going to do that, why keep it so limited in scope that every scene, every song, and nearly every joke reiterates the comedy you already know, rather than expanding or developing it? And why would major Broadway talents sign on in usual capacities (actor John Tartaglia is director, dancer Shannon Lewis is the choreographer) to what is, at most, a Fringe Festival lark?

Just kidding! You don't have to be high on mushrooms to know that everyone involved knows a sure thing when they see it. And, to this point, at least, that 100-coin gamble would seem to be working. We're all engulfed in a collective lust for 1980s nostalgia (you know this is the Back to the Future year, right?!?), so out of the gate this idea is hotter than a fire flower. Claudio Quest is already the most talked-about NYMF show this year, is reportedly sold out for the rest of its run (through tomorrow), and has been granted a production that's so eye-popping and polished that you can't help but wonder whether the contracts for a commercial transfer have already been signed.

The sets (by Timothy R. Mackabee) are sleek and fast-moving, the costumes (Leon Dobkowski) are gloriously colorful throwbacks that don't attempt raw imitation, and everything is deliciously pixellated. The puppets, courtesy of Michael Schupbach and The Puppet Kitchen), bring to life a vivid menagerie of ridiculous, personality-rich supernumeraries. Even the orchestrations (by Doug Katsaros) easily blend the bleeps and bloops of 8-bit composition with easier-on-the-ear rock strains typical of the era. Lewis's dances thrive on simple, repetitive movements clearly redolent of unassuming console play and are cunningly executed; like everything else, they just look right.

Andre Ward, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Ethan Slater, and Lesley McKinnell
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Despite all this, nothing readily pops off the TV screen of its own existence. Try to peek beyond the glittering exterior, and you won't find much to challenge either prevailing notions about electronic gaming or (perish the thought) your mind. This is a show that gets everything it goes for, but goes for so little that it can't even see the top of the flagpole from how close to the base it landed. For theatre lovers who haven't thought much about the Koopa Kingdom in the last couple of decades, that's a problem.

Set in the (sigh) Eggplant Kingdom, the musical follows plumber brothers Claudio (the tall, good-looking one, played by CJ Eldred) and Luís (the shorter, lowlier one, played by Ethan Slater) as they rescue (double sigh) the beautiful but vapid Princess Poinsettia (Lesley McKinnell) from the clutches of the (triple sigh) spike-loving, fire-breathing platypus, Bruiser (Andre Ward). All right, all right. There's also a halfhearted subplot about Poinsettia's progressive sister, Fish (Lindsey Brett Carothers), wanting adventuring equality from the brothers, and something resembling originality is in evidence from Bruiser's numerous roundabout sessions with his therapist.

Ultimately, however, the painfully overlong (upwards of two hours) evening is about little more than piranha-toothed plants, marching fungi, multicolored turtles, extra lives, item-granted invincibility, and so on. There's even an incomprehensible, cartoonish dinosaur made out of papier-mâché with a big Y painted on his side, and full songs about jumping on enemies, right scrolling, and what it's like to live in a two-button universe. Yes, it's cute, and yes, it's catchy (in the moment, anyway). But when you're bombarded with references like arcing hammers being lobbed by armored tortoises, is it to much to ask that it all add up to more than pointing and snickering akin to a dog's behavior on a duck hunt?

Though Tartaglia has staged with grinning gusto (his squat, giggling eggplant people are particularly winning), he's unified all the actors within a single performing style. Most appealing of the bunch is Slater, who finds a deft balance in Luís of latent heroism and second-banana insecurity, and doesn't need sledgehammers to get laughs from his lines. Eldred's puffed-chest portrayal is far less interesting, but acceptable for the material; the others all push too hard, except for the gifted puppeteers in the ensemble, who are splendid in a series of tiny, silly roles.

It's because of their kind of professionalism that Claudio Quest ever manages to feel more like a musical rather than a college variety show. The obviousness that otherwise floods the show becomes oppressive after a while; as with Pailet's own Triassic Parq, it's an idea in search of an execution that makes sense. This show has been floating around for a while (it was done in Washington, D.C. in 2010 under the title Super Claudio Bros.), and hasn't found one yet, but who knows what the future will bring.

Such things are of no concern here anyway; it's an undying passion for the past that's the order of the day. As a child of that era, who grew up fascinated by such games, part of what made them exciting is that the arcade was finally coming into your home, quality (more or less) intact. You were, in other words, seeing something new, which you never are with Claudio Quest. That's not necessarily bad—I laughed more than I feel comfortable admitting—or bad for business. But rather than a warp pipe down memory lane, wouldn't the writers and audiences alike probably prefer a tribute that also includes a solid sense of healthy creative 1UPmanship?

Claudio Quest
at The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015
Tickets online, Venue and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015 Guide and Tickets