Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist shows us that even the simplest of tricks can be truly magical when done right. Omri Schein’s writing is tight, hilarious, and well-tuned, while James Olmstead’s music is top-notch: both lively and memorable. Their collaboration reeks of professionalism.
It’s not obvious, but the show is just a year old, having been born in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival in 2012 as a short. Schein and Olmstead have since taken that short and developed it into a fully-fledged, raucously entertaining musical adventure.
The spotlight really shined on Jared Loftin, who played our Peter Parker-meets-Arnold Cunningham protagonist. Very surprisingly, Loftin is one of only two non-Equity actors in the cast. His portrayal of the awkward, dowdy, young Jewish boy was so genuine, so honest, and so truthfully human that it singularly converted some of the other baser aspects of the show into life-like realism. Additionally, he demonstrated some ridiculous vocal control in his dreamy solos, “Harry Houdini,” and “With A Little Bit Of Magic.”
The other emotional touchstone of the show was a paraplegic with a stutter played by Krista Buccellato. Her performance was sincerely heartfelt, and when she and Gary eventually fell in love, the two actors reduced me to a puddle of tears. Literal tears. The romance between them was utterly adorable.
Rival magician Kenny, played by the indefatigable James David Larson, is a cartoon villain from a Disney-Pixar movie brought to life, but his homicidal insanity is really quite fun to watch.
Composer James Olmstead headed the pit orchestra on the first of two keyboards, supplemented with bass and drums. For as bare-bones as that might appear in print, the full effect was huge, partly in thanks to the wide-range of Olmstead’s orchestrations. The sheer variety heard – from a haunting melody of eerie bells, to the loungy swing of a jazz combo, and then headlong into crunchy, synth-driven dance music – smacks of the musical comprehension and technical versatility of a virtuoso.
That last example, by the way, was complimented by the masterful dancing of actor Dimitri Moise, who was a joy to watch on stage.
A few songs felt a bit tangential to the main storyline, like “Cutting Things,” and “Jewish Mothers,” though Olmstead’s music helped greatly to keep us involved.
Some of his best work tried to sneak by unregistered as it sank behind the scenes occurring onstage – which is precisely what happens when good music matches the flow of the story and bonds to it. Other, more overt selections soared over the audience, such as the brilliant vocal harmonies of Loftin and Buccellato in “Walk All Over.”
On the side of things-I’ve-never-seen-before-on-stage, however, were the rampant pedophilia jokes about the character Coach Rimsore, who pines over the “hottest girl in school” character, Cheryl, played perfectly by Shoba Narayanan. While I did appreciate the brief foray into new Musical Theatre territory, Schein’s characters stay safely away from actually doing anything illegal, and the Coach’s sexuality is only used as repeating joke, so that the majority of untapped dramatically interesting potential in that direction was left unexplored. I don’t blame them for not making a show about pedophilia, however some ball somewhere has been set inadvertently rolling….
The way in which we learn of the Coach’s pedophilic desires is notable, since it constitutes a fusion of two previously distinct modes of staged storytelling: the Flashback and the Aside. The Coach, played by Todd Thurston, was ostensibly providing us with a flashback to explain the story when he suddenly started a commentary on himself – an unrealistic one, in the sense that his character would probably never say his darkest thoughts aloud. It was a brief moment, but it broke new dramatic ground by splicing together the two different techniques in a new and clever way.
If it wasn’t clear before this point:
Schein and Olmstead know how to do Theatre.
Another great moment of transcendent theatricality involved Gary’s mother’s attendance at her son’s magic show, which tacitly cast the audience present (i.e. yours truly, et al.) as the audience within the story. His act, which was supposed to be silent, was instead punctuated by his mother’s wails, ululations, and general commotion. This was a marvelous effect: the audience was literally folded into the show, and the scene (which would have otherwise been rather dull to listen to) became a riotous comedy act over and beyond the magic show occurring onstage. If it wasn’t clear before this point: Schein and Olmstead know how to do Theatre.
A lot of the humor in Schein’s script was based on stereotypes, and while that certainly earned some big laughs, it started to bother me after a while. Stereotypes are relatively easy things to poke fun at, and the comedic edge of a pithy joke loses some of its bite with each repetition. Unless every joke riffed on a completely different and unrelated stereotype (and I do applaud Schein for integrating so many), the whole thing is bound to wear itself out.
An interesting thing about this show was just how filled with hate the many antagonists were. At first the childlike malice was funny, but it steadily became harder and harder to identify with the characters (and yes, villains are characters too) as they sank deeper into their own hate, as best illustrated by the song, “Losers.”
The role of Ms. Salmonelli, played by MaryAnne Piccolo, was hilarious, and served as the embodiment of Gary’s temptation for food. Food played a pivotal role in the story, and that brought up an interesting challenge for staged theatre: how do you dramatize food?
The inherent problem is that food, though intrinsic to human nature, doesn’t read very well to audiences. In realistic form it can’t be seen, from a distance it can’t be smelled, and in eating it can’t be tasted – at least not by any sizeable audience. Gary Goldfarb used little illustrated boards to symbolize food items, and that worked just fine for the fairly intimate venue of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, but what do you do inside a massive theatre? Surely this raises some intriguing questions for designers.
The show is rife with magic tricks, which I loved immensely. One gag in particular outshined the rest: when Gary’s mom accidently transported a disappearing scarf into her brassiere. The real beauty of this effect lies in its combination of stage magic, story, and theatricality – as the actress, Piccolo, has to perform the trick herself in order to surprise her character. It was pure genius on behalf of the creative team.
Perhaps my biggest qualm with the story was Penelope’s plan win Gary’s heart. She made a vow to get Gary past his final obstacle in becoming a true magician. It’s the only time Penelope exercises true agency, and it was an opportunity for her to use her ingenuity, charm, and individual talent to secure Gary a spot in the competition and thereby earn his love. Without wanting to give anything away, let’s just say that her eventual solution felt more like an afterthought than a genius scheme. And given how crucial that moment was regarding the entire story arc, I was expecting something with a bit more style.
Overall Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist is a ton of magical fun, sure to enchant you with its one-of-a-kind charm. At times, Schein and Olmstead could be confused with Parker and Stone given the tight web they spin using heart, comedy, and good music. And I especially appreciated the unusual ending – but I don’t want to give it away!
See Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist at the New York Musical Theatre Festival!