‘I left humming the scenery” is a snippy comment attributed to a critic of yore whose name escapes me. The intent, however, of his or her observation is clear enough, as it immediately indicates what aspect of the show reigned supreme. Ben Katchor, whom readers of Metropolis Magazine and other notable publications recognize and revere as a picture-story cartoonist of originality and wit, is responsible for the astonishing scenic delights that lift “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, the Friends of Dr. Rushower),” a quirkily conceived new musical, into the must-see category. But before we wax ecstatic over the gorgeous graphic comic strip-styled designs that frame the show, it should be noted that Katchor also contributed the libretto, a uniquely conceived, if decidedly unorthodox, accomplishment in its own right.
Katchor’s boldly sketched drawings not only make use of a mainly color and occasional black and white palette but are enhanced by clever 3D like projections on movable panels, the work of Jim Findlay & Jeff Sugg. This may be Katchor’s first venture into designing for the theater, but his apparent affinity for satirical whimsy is certainly in harmony with the theatrical demands that both he and his collaborator composer, Mark Mulcahy, have imposed upon their politically postured musical. There is a lot to admire about a committed team of theatrical activists who are willing to cast stones at the American companies that exploit workers in third world countries, let alone show us the degenerating effects of consumerism upon our culture.
Mulcahy, whose credits, beside his own solo albums and as former front man of the band Miracle Mile, include current and future teaming with Katchor. His score, although it may be characterized as rock, owes its graceful and rhythmic construction to an older traditional genre, namely jazz. This is all to the good, as Katchor’s sung-through libretto is a marked departure from otherwise prevailing rhyme schemes and song formats. It takes a while for one’s ears to grow accustomed to the tempo and the tenacity of the recitative, barely distinguishable as songs, although titles are listed in the program.
Our curiosity is aroused from the start as we are introduced to the key characters, all of whom appear to inhabit a world as flaky as it is feckless. Dr. Rushower (Peter Friedman), a deluded philanthropist living in a skyscraper in New York City, heads an organization committed to doing good, if often misguidedly nutty deeds. His latest cause concerns the natives who are employed on Kayrol Island and whose job it is to carry small lead slugs on their shoulders from the boat to the factory. The slugs not only give “weight and substance” to cheaply made products but may be contributing to the workers’ short life spans. Dr. Rushower’s other concern is to find a husband for his disinterested but socially conscious daughter, GinGin (Jody Flader).
GinGin is more intrigued by phone calls from a mysterious stranger than by the interest of Immanuel Lubang (Bobby Steggert), a young man ardently dedicated to the study and reading of the instruction manuals that come with outmoded products and appliances. He is convinced that bringing this kind of instructional literature to the natives will change their lives for the better and that his success with them will also secure his romantic relationship with GinGin. But he isn’t prepared for the appearance of Samson (Matt Pearson), a hunky native with a disarming personality who turns out to be. . . far be it from me to spoil the denouement.
While some of the action, as facetiously directed by Bob McGrath and choreographed by John Carrafa, invites our laughter, most of the humor is derived through the sheer audaciousness of the musical’s concept. The cast has been carefully nurtured to reflect the serio-comic nature of the piece, as well as to become part of the strange reality into which they have been transported.
The strangeness of the musical comes, in part, from not having one character whose journey remains our focus. We are, nevertheless, left thinking about who among them is most likely to be left as the most disenfranchised citizen in a misguided society.
The attractive and appealing Flader has the opportunity, as GinGin, to be both the most conflicted and also the most consumed by passion. Pearson goes native with elan, as Sampson. Steggert is excellent as the enamored, but literature-challenged Immanuel. Stephen Lee Anderson, as a businessman and Tom Riis Farrell as a butler and pilot comply with the fun-infested requirements of their roles. I got a special kick out of Will Swenson, as a fey psychiatrist whose advice to Dr. Rushower upon examining GinGin is, “The less she knows about the world the better.”
And how can you not appreciate Peter Friedman who as Dr. Rushower sings with a straight face, “Through printed circuitry and miniature-electro-mechanics, the inner workings of all small appliances have been reduced to a fraction of their original size: A look inside reveals an almost empty shell of plastic.”
Four casually dressed musicians, three of whom are notable for wearing their hats throughout the performances, play their respective instruments in a depression at the rear of the stage. Their expert musicianship is as craftily exercised as is Russell H. Champa’s splendid lighting.
It is disclosed that the most significant plight of the day workers on Kayrol Island is that they drink bottled water laced with codeine. Put that into the context of a musical in which Immanuel gets his kicks at a Poetry Slam where people read instructions for obsolete models, we get an inkling of what Katchor and Mulcahy are telling us amidst all that wonderful scenery, or do we? HHH
“The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, the Friends of Dr. Rushower)” through Sunday, March 16, with an extension likely), Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street. $60. 212-353-0303.