Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Over the years, The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio has fostered the development of many new musicals, some in the form of readings and workshops, and others in full-scale productions. Legendale: A New Musical was presented via a staged reading back in December 2016, and now opens the theater company's new season with the American professional premiere of the show in a solid and unique mounting.
Legendale is an original story focusing on Andy, a millennial who escapes from the doldrums and stress of life by using all of his spare time, and some clandestine time while at his unfulfilling IT job, lost in the world of an online role-playing video game called Legendale. When Andy enters a special tournament involving Legendale with a million dollar prize, he begins an unexpected and crazy quest with a new avatar (Zelayna) that both screws up his job and propels him toward living out his real life with others.
The songs by Andrea Daly (music) and Jeff Bienstock (lyrics) are well crafted and apt to the story. Daly's music is catchy and varied, mixing a tuneful pop sound with more traditional musical theater styles. Bienstock's lyrics use true rhymes and convey introspection and wit. The opening number, "When We Play," establishes the tone and setting well and provides a high energy start to the show. The musical's ballads, including "Dead Again," Andy's want song early in the show, are some of the best numbers in the show. There are a few songs that could be structured differently to allow for easier performance and understanding, such as "Why Not Me?," but overall the score is an asset to the show.
The book, also by Daly and Bienstock, is a mixed bag. The subject matter is novel, and there are solid elements of modern-day fantasy, humor, romance and adventure. Also, the general themes of wanting to find connection in a world of social awkwardness (one long associated with gamers) are clearly developed and realized. However, there are times when the plot takes the easy way out with unlikely outcomes and reactions to choices made by characters, vague technology cop-outs, and lulls in the narrative. The show also has a bit of an identity crisis: is it a sci-fi fantasy, a romantic comedy, a campy musical adventure? It tries to be all of these to some extent, but doesn't go far enough with any of them to really have a true identity. There are some very good parallels (comparing a mundane office life to being in a dungeon) and character backstories and realizations, but they need to be further developed and focused to provide more warmth and sympathy for the characters.
Mixing the worlds of current-day life with online fantasy isn't easy in live theater, but the Human Race production does well with this. Director/choreographer John Simpkins employs some cute staging choices, especially within the game, and the blocking and use of the performance space is effective and unique. Michael Schweikardt's attractive scenic design includes a well-used turntable, three video screens which aid in defining both the online and real-world settings (kudos to David Bengali's projections), and several Tetris-inspired sliding panels, along with some smaller mobile set pieces. The costumes by Ayn Kaethchen Wood are fun for the various gaming avatars, but more variety in the real-world characters is needed. John Rensel's lighting is apt and contains a few cool effects. Scot Wooley leads a great sounding seven-piece band playing orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.
As Andy, Max Crumm (Broadway's Grease and Disaster!) skillfully employs an easygoing singing voice and embodies the likeable tech nerd the script calls for. Abby Church is spunky, sweet and funny as The Cow Maiden, turned into fierce avatar warrior Zelayna, and scores laughs in a role requiring lots of physical dexterity and timing. Rachel Flynn, portraying Andy's co-worker Beth, does well with a somewhat underdeveloped role and thankfully avoids taking the character into what could be a generic place. As the creator of the video game Legendale, Jesse Sharp is appropriately pompous and manipulative. The four remaining cast membersTravis Mitchell, the always delightful Nathan Robert Pecchia, Cody Westbrook, and Colin Hodgkineach play various game avatars, gamers, and/or office workers with great skill and energy. The cast as a whole are strong singers, but it seemed on opening night that either a cold or rehearsal fatigue was affecting some of the vocals.
Legendale: A New Musical has much going for it and the potential to tap into a gaming community that will certainly identify with the themes, characters, and story for its audience. The show has many cute nods to gamers, but enough appeal for general theater audiences as well. Some improvements to the book would help support the strong score that is already an asset to the show. The Human Race Theatre Company provides a worthwhile American premiere for the show, and the creative team will hopefully continue to work to make it even better.
Human Race Theatre Company's Legendale: A New Musical, through October 1, 2017, 126 N Main St., Dayton, OH. For more information and tickets, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.