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!"

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