Move over “Mario Brothers”! Pack up “Pac-Man” (–you too, “Ms. Pac”!) There’s some new video-game heroes in town– Anaheim California specifically, as that city’s “Chance Theater” at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center” presents the West Coast Premiere production of “Claudio Quest”! This vibrant new musical features music, lyrics and book by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet, with direction by Pailet, choreography by Maxx Reed, and musical direction by Ryan O’Connell. Billed as “An 8-‘Bit’ Musical that asks ‘What if life is more than just A or B’”, we’re also reminded that sometimes true heroes can arise in the most unexpected places and take on the most unusual forms. A little unconventional, yes–but riotously entertaining, this is just the thing for viewers who have been weaned on the likes of such recent high-octane cinematic fare as “The Avengers”, “Batman Vs. Superman”, and “The Suicide Squad”. Although the plot primarily lampoons the admittedly off-beat gaming giants, “Donkey Kong” and its ‘spin-off’ “Super Mario Brothers”, rest assured that just about every arcade fave is sent up for its’ shot in the “Chance’s” satirical spot-light. Either way, it’s like watching a vintage video game come alive on stage before your very eyes!
What if video game characters had minds of their own? Set in a “Virtual Reality” world, this lively story introduces us to “The Claudio Brothers”—led by “Claudio”–a very “super” hero, and possessor of the “Golden Eggplant” (which grants its holder a spare “life” once all his are used up.) Clad in a blue jumpsuit and matching backward turned base-ball cap, due to the skill his real-life player has at the game, “Claudio” we soon learn has gained the reputation as invincible. At his side through it all is “Luis”–his somewhat less super younger brother who sports a similar orange jumpsuit and hat. Nonetheless, in spite of his many wins for the crowd and crown of “Eggplant Land” he is still strong and stalwart enough to not take even his highest score for granted (much) “Sometimes I wonder if we’re even in control of our own actions,” Claudio waxes at one point; “and is God in control or is he just playing with us?!” Their seemingly unending crusade is to save the fair “Princess Poinsettia”—daughter of “King Eggplant”, from the fowl and formidable clutches of “Bruiser”—a vile, fire-breathing Platypus—and the game’s Super-boss”, who seems to be in the perennial habit of nabbing the Princess and imprisoning her at his domain several “levels’ away; to top it off, , “Bruiser” very well may be acting out of a frustrated ‘crush’ on ‘Princess P.’ (“I’m a purple pile of self-loathing” he divulges at one point) But what happens when it’s a complete ‘newbie’ at the joystick? (In this case, that ‘flesh-and-blood’ gamers’ little brother who steals a chance to play.) The consequences have the kingdom of “Eggplant Land” suddenly plunged into chaos, meaning it’s time once more for our boys to set out to save the day (and the Princess.) Surprisingly though, this time around they’re joined by “Poinsettia’s” determined, butt-kicking kid sister, “Princess Fish” (“Son of a Bit-Map!” Luis exclaims when this new avatar appears on the scene.) Initially disguised as a guy named “Jorge” in a sombrero, screaming yellow jumper and moustache, she too is eager for a taste of adventure, becoming their “Third Player” (something unheard of in their virtual reality–but one they’re certain to wind up glad to have on hand!) Thus, the trio embark on their musical mission to conquer a bevy of ‘spaced invaders’, such as killer eggplants, flying turtles, and one love-starved, hot-headed, platypus done up like a refugee from Brando’s “The Wild One”—these, over and above each having to also overcome his or her own particular existential software-crisis!
Along with a nice, (and periodically, even ‘bouncy’) contemporary score, Fornarola and Pailet’s book is commensurately sly and always witty–incorporating several pointed references to recent headlines which never failed to garner huge laughs and applause (–including one knowing little suggestion that, with their titular Hero as their guiding light, the people can “Make Eggplant Land Great Again!”) Pailet’s direction also makes sagacious use of his overall space, frequently utilizing moving set pieces to create the illusion of forward motion, and his enterprising deployment of the highly talented ensemble make many of the special effects seem even grander and more effective. Take for instance, the climactic “Boss Battle” scene, in which each ‘player’ is able to ‘leap’ into the fray in glorious slow-motion, thanks to the literal ‘support’ of some efficaciously placed cast-mates. This is matched by Reed’s equally innovative choreography, that’s respectively jivey and cool, then effervescent and stylish—integrating elements of gospel, hip-hop, and classic 1950’s ‘Bop’. Not to be over-looked either is O’Connell’s wholly computerized musical accompaniment, which vividly recalls the unforgettable uber-synthesized sounds of an authentic 80’s era video game. Indeed, essentially a ‘multi-media’ production, it would be way too much of an understatement to assert that the technical elements seen here are a force of unto themselves to behold! Matt Schleicher’s brilliant (–and at times near-psychedelic) lighting design absolutely makes this a Technicolor extravaganza—which itself is supplemented by Justin Mellilo’s appropriately digital animated projections. Broadcast across the stage rear wall, these serve as a crafty gate-way that essentially bridges the “real-world” framing the action, with and the more flashy ‘Cybernetic’ world the actual story is played out in. Similarly aiding this ‘other worldly’ effect is Rachael Lorenzetti’s vivaciously colorful costume designs, that inform and enliven all of the goings-on, whether they be the purple and plum-paisley garb of the citizenry of “Eggplant Land” (also featuring some nifty “Eggplant” and “Mushroom” hats), or Claudio’s “Heavenly” silver-lame jump suit, to “Bruiser’s” grunge-inspired flannel waist wrap-around, and Poinsettia’s billowy cherry-red silk “Princess” gown. Throughout, Ms. Lorenzetti gets substantial returns from her shrewdly chosen sartorial selections.
Then again, a show like this really ‘lives’ and ‘breathes’ on the strength of its hard-working cast—and happily, each never let the massive technical effects overshadow them—but instead use them to serve and bolster, the very ‘human’ performances. “Claudio Saves The Day” is a stunning opener bestows the full cast (in their full-on, dazzling, multi-hued regalia) which magnificently acquaints us with our hero, his brother, and all of the characters who populate this computerized realm. It also occasions some buoyant group harmonies as well, which happens time and again all through the proceedings! “A Or B” is another spirited group undertaking, starting small as an introspective “Luis” ponders his fate as a second banana in the game of life (not to mention his feelings for his royal traveling companion) that gradually builds to a momentous Act Break. Their collective singing and dancing endeavors also immensely add to much the fun during the latter half of the show as well. Forming a long, gyrating ‘chorus line’ they keep “The Platypus Song” moving and grooving along, followed shortly by “Keep Moving Right”, backed by members of the ensemble attired in stately choir-robes, which also ranks as a bona fide post-intermission crowd-pleaser. Before all this, the entire company comes together to launch the second act with “Game Over”—as the people of “Eggplant Land” face catastrophe (still again) after “Claudio” has ostensibly been wiped out by falling into a bottomless pit: “It was time for his dream to die” Fish waxes philosophical, unaware that it was really thanks to the clumsy mishandling of the controls by “Claudio’s” real world gamer’s cunning pre-pubescent relation. Yet On the other hand, without the youngster’s determination to finish the game, none of them would eventually be able to celebrate the big and ebullient finale”, where they ultimately exult “there’s room for more than one hero in this game!”
As “Claudio”, the “Ridiculously Awesome” hero of the title, Beau Brians has dashing looks and a strong voice, and he quickly demonstrates this with some incredible money-notes during the opening, as “Claudio” enters to uproarious acclaim having saved the day (and Princess Poinsettia”) fresh from the clutches of his detestable, flame-belching nemesis, “Bruizer”. Subsequently, when matters necessitate his engagement in still another, comparable “quest”, Brians also triumphs with “Jump On” and its reprise. “Claudio”, now in a more ‘ethereal’ form, also appears again on down the line to give his brother some much-needed advice with the boisterous “Keep Moving Right”, as Luis tries not to lose more “lives” (in this world you can have several before being counted out for good,) while on the way to save BOTH of the Princesses. As his devoted “Player Two”, “Luis” Andrew Puente too, does a superlative job; his character may live in the shadow of his super sibling, but he, himself still has plenty of opportunities to shine—and that he does starting with his Act One soliloquy, “Player Number Two”, wherein Luis fancies what it might be like, were he ever to gain the skill and notoriety his brother enjoys and perhaps someday even score enough to become (–gasp–) “Player Number One”! “Sometimes I imagine that it’s me out in front—imagine that I’M Number One—my face is on T-shirts, I’m dating the Princess, I’m counted on, smiled upon—I’m second to none; and everyone’s nephews and nieces are dressed up like little ‘Luis’s, and they think they’re me—how cool would that be?!” he reflects; later, when it looks like his wish has been granted, faced with doubt at the prospects ahead of him he laments, “I’m a four-bit hero in an eight-bit world”, however this instigates his equitably engaging Act Two chanson, “Luis’ Turn”.
Uniting with them on their intrepid journey is Monika Pena as “Princess Fish”. Offering far more than just a pretty face, she similarly secretly aspires to be a hero herself, and her splendidly delivered solo, “Super Fish” is an out-and-out highlight: “Restless and bored, I get ignored” she mopes; as luck would have it though, she just might get her wish by the time the final notes of the show are sounded. Along the way, she gets to exhibit some pretty dexterous moves—not least of which being a few eye-popping high kicks that could be exactly what’s required to save the day, once our boy “Claudio” is “Glitched”. What’s more, Kim Dalton is exquisite, all decked out in bright red, as her sister, that “Pixel Pixie in the flesh”, “Princess Poinsettia”. Gifted with the kind of lush, operatic voice that Disney’s “Snow White” would envy, she proves this early on during her part in “Claudio Saved The Day”. Then, her duet with the maybe-not-so heinous “Bruiser”, titled “Poor Me” is a first class (if slightly surreal) dual victory showcasing both performer’s vocal-talents luminously. In Act Two, she strikes gold again with another pairing—this time with Pena, in “There’s More Than One Way”, whereupon the King’s captive offspring, realizing there’s more than one way to be a Princess, unite to free themselves from the cage “Bruiser” has trapped them in. Sure, they may hate each other’s individual style, but they reaffirm their deep care for one another regardless, resulting in another terrific moment for each. (Once Fish grasps that by working together they can be unstoppable, she proclaims “Holy Eggplants, Poinsettia! I think I’ve invented ‘multi-player’!”) Moreover, Miguel Cardenas’ “Bruiser” is a leather-jacketed, duck-billed ‘slacker’ with a tendency to breathe fire as much as he wallows in his own neurosis. In fact, his may be the most unique musical Baddie the stage has seen in…well, ever! Add to it, Cardenas can also lay claim to a genuinely sumptuous, smooth and soulful voice, which he effectively puts into the service of “Poor Me” and “The Platypus Song”, both opposite “Princess Poinsettia” (GAME ON! Michael Bolton watch out!)
Numerous ancillary performers are also worthy of significant notice and admiration–among them, Ashley Arlene Nelson, a familiar face at “The Chance”, who returns as “Boof”–the Video Game’s mega-perky narrator. Nelson makes the most of her hilarious turn with “The Princess Is Not Here”–a funny and vivacious interlude in the middle of the first act. Kellie Spill is a stand-out as well, contributing lots of big laughs as “Bruiser’s” Therapist “Elgafink”: “Don’t be a ‘plata-pussy’!” she reproaches her “Villainous” charge over his reticence to tell Poinsettia how he really feels about her. Likewise, as the ‘Autocratic Aubergine” of all “Eggplant-land”—“King Eggplant”, Amy Rebecca King is an intriguing mix of “Gandalf” or “Merlin The Magician” were they re-envisioned by Elmer Fudd. Popping in and out of the on-stage hijinks, she gains a steady stream of giggles and guffaws, while maintaining a delightful air of eccentricity. Of course, this whole ‘saga’ would never get off the ground if there wasn’t anyone to tangibly ‘play’ the game in ‘real time’–and here, Joseph Ott manages to make a laudable mark in the too-easily over-looked (but very important) role of ‘The Player’ (a.k.a. ‘The Big Brother”) while that of his “Little Bro” (—the lad who makes the eventual happy ending possible,) on opening night was assayed by Dylan Shube, who shares it concurrently through the run with Jack Reid.
So set your ‘inner-winner’ free and experience this ‘electrifying’ new production! Having previewed from January 27th through February 3rd, “Claudio Quest” officially opened on February 4th, where it will play through February 26th, 2017, on “The Cripe Stage” of “The Chance Theater” at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center” located at 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, California. Showtimes are Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM; additional performances will be held on Wednesday, February 8th at 7:30 PM and Thursday, February 16th at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be obtained by calling (888) 455-4212 or on-line at: www.ChanceTheater.com . (Special discounts are available for seniors, students and the military.)
Production Photos by Doug Catiller at “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Marshall Pailet, Drew Fornarola, Maxx Reed, Ryan O’Connor And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2017 West Coast Premiere Production Of “Claudio Quest”” For Making This Story Possible.