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Sound Advice Reviews

Jasper in Deadland
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here's the first recording of a musical that's been produced in the last couple of years with the same leading man as a teen leading quite a life—or perhaps I should say quite an afterlife.


Ghostlight Records/ Razor & Tie

What the hell, I figure that once per decade, in this column, I should invite you on a journey to Hades. The very first CD I reviewed here, back in 2005, was a cast album of The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim, an older musical comedy of his taking place in the underground world where the dead were anything but deadly serious. The "Deadland" in Jasper in Deadland is that same notorious hot location of post-mortal life laced with clever humor, but mixed with teen angst and hero Jasper's agenda to find his BFF turned bedmate-for-a-night. Like Sondheim, Ryan Scott Oliver writes both words and music, but his palette is colored more in pop-rock hues. The score is full of jangly, edgy energy and sly, contemporary sensibilities.

As the title character, Matt Doyle, who starred in the New York City and Seattle productions, is quite appealing and engaging. While the album won't convince you he seems to be still a high school student, he delivers enough youthful frustration, confusion, and go-for-broke daring to be in the ballpark. With lots of material to sing, he finds different colors in his voice and calibrates the anguish and intensity to avoid premature overdosing.

With familiar characters from mythology actually appearing or serving more subtly as models, this visit covers familiar (under)ground. It starts off getting my attention and holding it for some time with wit and marvelously weird freshness. I'm right there, eagerly entertained and following the stranger in a strange and increasingly stranger land—but, in time, the fire and brimstone seems to almost burn out. The novelty wears off or wears thin, with less variety and increase in cacophony.

The dialogue, written in collaboration with Hunter Foster, is heard in bits between and within songs. The characters in this residence of the dead, lower level, get to spout irreverent quips that amuse, like one-third of the tri-headed creature who serves big boss Pluto wondering about the meaning of existence remarking, "Perhaps we must think it over together. After all, three heads are much better than one." One female Jasper meets may be after his heart, romantically speaking, while another is after his heart literally—to eat—and asks, "Now where's my blind justice?" The less threatening female, ostensibly his assigned tour guide of "all the hot spots," suddenly has had enough and snaps, "Here—take a map. Goodbye!" And she leaves as young newspaper hawkers shout the day's headlines about recent arrival Jasper's ability to refresh the dead folks' fading memories of their lives on Earth. In the background, a female newsie's Jewish mother kvells about her daughter being her class's valedictorian. Meanwhile, another woman sells something else—her sexy actions. All this happens in a major musical piece that includes the very catchy, oddly perky title song. Each Hunter/Oliver twist and turn of plot and dialogue on the album is worth hearing and adds to the immersive experience. The actors dive in with glee as Doyle seems to lock into his function as likeable, confused fish out of water (while warned not to drink the river's water that causes people to forget their pasts when alive, including their names—"You'll forget you forgot" he's told in "The Forgetting"). But he stays on task, determined and chatty: "You see, I'm looking for a friend of mine and she may be alive, too," he tries to explain.

I especially like the early musical numbers as we meet the characters in this odd place and the musical sounds and accents become rich with spinning surprises and quirkiness. In these instances, with more eccentric voices and flashes of appropriate "devilishness" in the goings-on, the seven-member orchestra benefits from the imaginative orchestrations of John Clancy (who co-produced the CD with the songwriter). The soundscape indeed suggests a unique and appropriately disconcerting new place. It's filled with a madness that makes Jasper in Deadland echo the nonsensical sensibilities of Lewis Carroll's colorful trippy times for Alice, in Wonderland. Will Van Dyke, a creative songwriter in his own right, is musical supervisor.

Louis Hobson as bigwig Lethe ("Lethe is more!" is a mantra) is a hoot and on target for the tone. Sydney Shepherd makes the most of her tour guide's flippancy and use of contemporary lingo and a Valley Girl voice in "Tour Song," pointing out points of interest that "never made the lame brochure/ Brought to you -- Free/ By your awesome tour guide -- Me/ But tips are appreciated." These two standouts were in the Seattle cast which, like the Manhattan Prospect Theatre company, was directed by Brandon Ivie. In many smaller roles ranging from gods to ordinary dead guys, the disc's very versatile supporting company of six is made up of members of one cast or the other, with Andi Alhadeff, like Doyle, having been in both productions.

Other numbers boast multiple rhymes in tight lines, as in "The Forgetting"'s conclusion: "You'll learn, like other folk/ That life is just a joke/ A trick of glass and smoke/ A dream from which you've awoke." While Jasper starts off despairing and self-deprecating ("I'm a loser"), opining what life is made of ("Life is awful people" is his sum-up as he moans on about his divorcing parents). But the show in its critical moments of (literally) life and death—and choosing between them—and sacrifice, becomes strikingly life affirming. In the fervent and aching emotions and realizations only felt at fever pitch when we are teens, the age of Jasper and his dear Agnes is most ideally impactful, impulsive and anguished like Romeo and Juliet.

While Ryan Scott Oliver's longish score may be somewhat uneven, meaning that you might not necessarily say to the songwriter what another musical Oliver! famously asked—"Please, sir, I want some more."—much of it rocks on and rocks out with flair. And you might just be happily surprised just how much fun Hell can be.

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