Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Joe vs. the Volcano
The Musical

Lamb's Players Theatre

Also see Bill's reviews of Harmony, Kansas and Blood and Gifts

Sean Cox and John Rosen
Joe vs. the Volcano was a 1990 film that flopped miserably. It had what we'd consider now to be a pretty good pedigree, though, with Tom Hanks paired with Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges doing his best scenery-chewing, and John Patrick Shanley (who had earlier scored by writing Moonstruck and who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt) as writer and director.

The story was pretty cheesy, and though Ms. Ryan was coming off of a succès de scandale in When Harry Met Sally, Mr. Hanks' career wouldn't take off until being paired with Ms. Ryan again in Sleepless in Seattle. While the film didn't score among the worst of the 1990s, it just didn't do well, either at the box office or in the rental market.

So, how do you rehabilitate a cheesy failure as a musical? Scott Hafso and Darcy Phillips' solution: make it even cheesier. And, you know what? Mostly, that tactic works, as demonstrated in Lamb's Players Theatre's world premiere production.

Joe Banks (Sean Cox) slaves away at a dull job in a bland company with a maniacal and overbearing boss (John Rosen). Joe has developed hypochondria over the years, perhaps as a way of putting some excitement into his nothing life. At one doctor appointment, Joe learns that he has a terminal disease and can expect to live no more than six months, though he will be healthy until near the end.

Not so coincidentally, as it turns out, Joe receives a visit from Mr. Graynamore (Jim Chovick), an industrialist. Graynamore has business with a South Pacific island tribe that resides on a small island dominated by a volcano. The tribe believes that once every 100 years the volcano demands a human sacrifice, and so Graynamore's business has come to a halt until someone can be found to jump into the volcano. Graynamore tells Joe that he learned of Joe's illness from his doctor, and he offers Joe a sweet deal to quit his job, travel to the island, and sacrifice himself to the volcano.

Once Joe accepts, he is liberated from his sad existence. He actively courts a love interest (well, three love interests, actually, but they're all played by Eileen Bowman), spends a bunch of money on clothes and accessories, including three top-of-the-line steamer trunks, and sets sail for the island, where he hopes to find his inner hero.

Interrupting a plot such as this one for big production numbers serves to enliven a tale that would have gotten old fast. The Hafso/Phillips songs are best when they keep things simple (the act two ballad "Thank You" is simultaneously the simplest and most effective), and they also serve to highlight the spiritual side of Mr. Shanley's story ("Away From the Things of Man"). That spiritual side isn't given its complete due, though, and the story is the weaker for it.

"Madcap" would be the style I'd describe for the production, and while director Robert Smyth excels at farce I wouldn't say that "madcap" is his forte. He does keep things moving, though, while still allowing some space for "cameos" to shine through. Getting particular moments in the spotlight are Antonio T. J. Johnson, who dons his Driving Miss Daisy cap to offer Joe sage advice; Jim Chovick as Graynamore; John Rosen, relaxed and fun as Waponi Chief in act two, making up for his relentless and humorless boss in act one, and Danny Bowman, a savory luggage salesman. All of them contribute to the aurora of charm that predominates from the tap choreography of Colleen Kollar Smith to the visible stage hands who help make the scenic projections work. Jon Lorenz's musical direction causes a four-piece band to sound as if it were bigger, and enhances some fine vocal work, particularly from Ms. Bowman.

It would take a fair amount of additional development to bring this piece up to Broadway expectations, but as a charming showcase for the talents of a fine regional company such as Lamb's Players Theatre, the show is ready to go.

Performances through July 29, 2012, Wednesday —Sunday at Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA 92118. Tickets ($26 - $64) available by calling (619) 437-6000 or by visiting

Lamb's Players Theatre presents the world premiere of Joe vs. the Volcano, The Musical. Directed by Robert Smyth, with musical direction by Jon Lorenz, and choreography by Colleen Kollar Smith. Costume design is by Jeanne Reith, scenic design by Michael Buckley, lighting by Nathan Peirson, properties design and projection engineering by Michael McKeon and sound design by Stephanie Celustka, and SFX sound design by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Maria Mangiavellano is the production's stage manager.

With Sean Cox, John Rosen, Eileen Bowman, Jason Heil, Jim Chovick, Antonio T. J. Johnson, Brian Rickel, Danny Boman, Kathleen Calvin, Nicki Elledge, Greg Good, Caitie Grady, and Krysten Hafso.

Photo: JT MacMillan

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie