16 October 2015

You'll Get Urinetown

               Today is a pretty weird day, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's weird because today is the opening of the off-Broadway revival of Urinetown, The Musical, which I happen to have been cast in. It's being produced by a new company (Fracture Theatre Co.) with a non-Equity cast in the very theater that Urinetown was first done off-Broadway (the American Theatre of Actors, or ATA for short) under the umbrella of the company that originally produced Urinetown on and off-Broadway (that would be the Araca Group). Even weirder is that the Chernuchin, the specific theater housed in the ATA that we'll be performing in, is being renamed tonight in honor of John Cullum. If you don't know who that is, well, a short answer is he originated the role of Caldwell B. Cladwell in Urinetown. A slightly longer answer is he is a two-time Tony Award winner with a heap of other awards and nominations and a long career in theatre and television. Basically, he's a pretty cool guy.
               However, the weirdest thing about all of this is that Urinetown was the first musical I did in college. Not quite the first show, for that honor belongs to The Mikado, but it was the first American musical I did in my freshman year at MIT. I did it with Next Act, the theatre company housed in my dorm. We'd put on a show every year during Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) for the MIT community and incoming pre-freshman, or pre-frosh as we all called them, transforming our large Tastefully Furnished Lounge space into a small theater with a stage, lights, and a house seating as many as around 183 people. Every Next Act production was a labor of love for everyone involved when we'd stop p-setting to rehearse, prepare, and do a musical. Urinetown was my first show with Next Act.
               Next Act was one of the driving forces in me becoming an actor. It was with Next Act that I learned a sense of community and truly became obsessed with theatre, often determining to work on my role or my choreo or my directing rather than worrying about the problem set due at 10:00 AM the next morning. Fellow members of the cast and crew would repeatedly have to force me to go to bed, otherwise I'd sit there with them and help build the set (despite my lack of skills with a tools, power or otherwise), or sew costumes (despite my lack of sewing knowledge), or whatever else needed to get done until the Sun would rise. Getting sick or losing my voice wouldn't stop me from doing whatever I could because I had never cared about something so much in my life. I remember trying to give choreography notes, but being unable to talk, so I wrote them all down, gave them to one of my friends to read aloud, and then flailed wildly while I tried to physically emulate not just the dance steps but the emotion I was going for (I'm not a dancer, by the way, so it was a pretty hilarious sight). Eventually I learned to balance my insatiable drive with my health in such a way that I was highly productive instead of mildly productive while being half-dead yet enthusiastic, and it was Next Act that was the lab for me to figure this out for myself.
               Finally, Next Act was the first time I was admired by people I didn't know for my acting. I remember the Dean of Students, who coincidentally was our housemaster at Next House, telling me his kids had been stomping around the apartment imitating me after seeing our production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, singing about falcons and scurrilous phantoms and other such things. Of course I didn't know how to respond besides smiling and being thankful, and, to be honest, I still don't know how to respond to that other than being gracious, but it was when I first learned that I could affect other people. That stuff that I, Johari Menelik Frasier, did could do something to other people for more than a passing moment.
               My senior year of college I recall walking back to my dorm with a friend of mine after what I can only guess was a cast party. The night had progressed to early morning, perhaps around 3:00 AM, and before we parted ways we had gotten into one of those deep conversations that twenty-somethings tend to do when the hour gets late. Both of us being involved in the arts at MIT, the subject fell to acting, as it so often does between actors, and he brought up Urinetown. Specifically, he brought up Next Act's production of Urinetown. This friend of mine was one year below me, so Urinetown was the show he saw during his CPW. He talked about how amazing the show was, and how he specifically remembered my performance as Officer Lockstock. He remembered thinking that he wanted the opportunity to work with me and to gain the same skills that I had. I was dumbfounded. This was a person I had considered a far superior actor to myself, yet the idea that he had formed such a high opinion of me before he even knew me shocked me. The idea that somehow I touched some part of his humanity enough for him to have clear memories of things I did, things I wasn't even sure I remembered, was perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. One could argue something about fishes in small ponds since no one outside of MIT seems to be aware it has a theatre program, but that doesn't make the moment any less important to the life of this fish.
               I sit here, knowing that tonight I'm going to make my off-Broadway debut in a fantastic musical in front of the original producers and one of the original cast members, and I can only feel that things have, in some sense, come full circle. I basically started my college acting career and serious consideration of acting with Urinetown, and now I'm literally about to debut off-Broadway in the very same show. So I'm grateful for many things. I'm grateful that the director of the 2010 Next Act production decided to produce one of the greatest musicals in the last twenty years and that she decided to take a chance on a freshman who had no idea what he was doing, and whether she knew it or not, helped start me on the path that I'm following now. And I'm grateful that Fracture was willing to take this kid straight out of conservatory and put him in their first production ever. And I'm grateful to be part of this extremely talented cast who I watch do their work and actively wonder how they do half the things they do with a mixture of envy and pride of being one of them.

               Finally, I'm grateful that I'm living out a dream. If six years ago someone told me that the show I had been listening to obsessively and was going to do in my dorm lounge was going to be the show I made my off-Broadway debut in, I'd tell them they were nuts. And yet it's happening tonight, and all I can do is smile and say I guess I got Urinetown.

16 July 2015

Theatre Thursday: Here Comes Claudio

                It must be that time of year again. "What time of year?" you ask. Why, NYMF time, of course. On Tuesday I had the pleasure of seeing my first NYMF show of the season, Claudio Quest, with book, music, and lyrics by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet. Before I even looked up the Festival's offerings this year, Facebook, in its all knowing capacity (re: cookie reading), had a Claudio Quest ad mentioning heroes and video games and 8-bit deliciousness. Needless to say, I immediately decided that I had to see it, which is to say I turned to my girlfriend, Sarah, and said, "I have to see this. We have to see this. It's IMPORTANT." Bonus points for being by Drew Fornarola, a composer I had the pleasure of meeting at an installment of the Songwriters' Salon and whose music I admire. Unfortunately, we could not score free tickets as we did last year, as I don't think Space.com has an 8-bit beat, but that, of course, was not going to stop us.
                What can I say about Claudio Quest? That it has arrived: the video game musical that you NEED and DESERVE. What Pailet and Fornarola have crafted is a thinly veiled send up of Super Mario Bros, and it is a truly glorious thing. You have the two brothers, the two princesses (yeah, we got a [really awesome] Daisy expy, I was excited), a strange fire-breathing monster arch-nemesis, plant people, and turtles all in a delicious 8-bit package. Or, well, as 8-bit as living, breathing people can be on stage. Yet, despite having a direct analogue to almost every character present in Mario's 8- and 16-bit days, Claudio Quest stands on its own as most everyone is quite different from the "source" material.
                Let's look at the Claudio Bros, Claudio, the Mario, and Luis, the Luigi. While Claudio is the ace, much like Mario, he longs for something different and new, but is set in his own ways. Not to mention he is tall, youthful, and generally dashing, unlike his mustachioed red and blue clad plumber counterpart. Luis, much like Luigi, loves his older brother, but suffers from being the screw-up with aspirations to greatness. While Luigi's fear comes from, well, generally just being scared of things, Luis' comes from an inability to grasp what happens if they don't follow rules and every path they've been down hundreds of times. You begin to realize that while the Mario Bros are loved for their simplicity and clarity of expression, what makes the Claudio Bros so wonderful, and so different, is that you can find yourself in each of them very easily, whether it's Claudio's fear of doing things differently or Luis' desire to make something of himself. And all of the characters manage this level of complexity while remaining true to extreme cartoonish exaggerations of their video game counterparts (except Princess Poinsettia, because Princess Peach is about two degrees from Poinsettia, making Poinsettia a minor exaggeration instead of a major one).  
                The book is brilliant. I say this because it is basically a fan's wet dream while remaining accessible to a person who has somehow avoided all things Mario in their life. If you don't know Mario, or any video games at all, it becomes a tightly knit, madcap story about finding yourself and climbing out of your sibling's shadow set against a backdrop of eggplants and block breaking. The zany moments, such as watching a certain someone talk to his psychiatrist, or the breakdown of a poor eggplant, become completely acceptable and logical in the world they've created.
                If you DO know a little bit about Mario, you will laugh your way through the entire performance as reference after reference greets you, and yet never detracts from the story. Perhaps one of the best moments of the night was a scene entirely devoted to referencing how turtles with green shells can only go in one direction while ones with red shells can turn as they please. Not to mention "The Princess is in Another Castle" bits.
                Speaking of references, the score, which is just as fantastic as the book, is packed with references to the original score of Super Mario Bros (written by Koji Kondo, one of the game industry's greatest and most beloved composers). If you know me, then you know that I am a big fan of highly melodic music, and this is a very melodic score. For example, "Poor Me," sung by Poinsettia and Bruiser, takes from the Underwater Theme in Super Mario. From the familiar beginning of the melody of that song, Fornarola and Pailet have constructed an entirely new song, immediately recognizable, and yet different enough to serve the purpose they need, which of course was to emphasize longing. Not to mention that it also kind of ends up serving as Poinsettia's motif throughout the show. Or the Act I finale, "A or B," in which all the characters seem to be faced with a mutually exclusive choice. Why is it choice A or choice B? Well it's not arbitrary at all, but rather, because the controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console used to play Super Mario Bros, only had an A button and a B button along with a d-pad. Here A was jump, and B was run, which were mirrored in Luis' lyrics in "A or B."
                Another strength of the show was how, even after a major event occurred at the end of the first act, Claudio Quest manages to let everyone go through trials and tribulations without a drastic tone change. This is a balancing act that so many musicals fail to succeed at. Many musicals have a stellar first act and the second act occurs and one is left wondering why it feels less tight or cohesive? Alternatively, the first act may be slow, possibly even plodding, and then the second act happens and it feels like a whole new piece of concentrated awesome. Claudio Quest never suffers from either affliction. The characters are consistent, but are still alive and able to grow as people, the gems of the score are across both acts (largely because every piece is a gem), and just because something shocking happens doesn't mean we've suddenly begun watching Next to Normal when we thought we were watching Seussical.
                Adding to the ambiance of the evening were the wonderful chiptune covers of pop music that played during the pre-show and intermission. I can honestly say that you haven't lived until you've heard chiptune covers of "Billy Jean" or "You Spin Me 'Round." In fact, chiptunes make most everything better as far as I'm concerned, and it was a perfect way of putting you in the mindset of watching something based on the games of your childhood.

                I could say more about Claudio Quest. I could say much, much more. But I think you probably get the gist by now, so it may be more prudent for me to stop. That being said, this musical was amazing. I have been waiting for something like this forever (or, you know, since I was sixteen and realized I loved musical theatre, whichever you prefer), and now that it's finally here, I can only imagine that I'll be seeing more material like this in the future, and that is truly exciting. And as far as Claudio Quest is concerned, I wish it the brightest future possible, with theaters nationwide rushing to perform it, because, to quote the opening song: "Here comes Claudio [Quest]! [It] is the greatest!"