A kaleidoscopic Faustian fever dream filled to the brim with post-Larson power pop grunge and sugary Sheik-Kitt folk operetta Jasper In Deadland—the latest effort by songwriter Ryan Scott Oliver and Hunter Foster—is a heart-throbbing rock musical every theater kid will want to cling to. Presented by off-Broadway’s Prospect Theater Company, it has the makings of an off-Broadway phenomenon; with its by-the-numbers fist-pumping score, gloriously acrobatic vocal show tunes, masterful performances and a good-looking cast, though the quest to get to the show’s “Elysium Delirium Destination” is like wading against the tides at times. But the journey there and back is one for the books.
Anyone that has stepped into the West End Theatre, located within the haunting Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, will notice that it is a far cry from your standard issue House Of God. To allow such a show about the underworld inside of the small, intimate theater is quite a surprise given the show in question is one that includes myth, magic, spirituality, and Christian symbolism.
Based loosely on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story follows Jasper (played with undeniable fervor by the angelic tenor Matt Doyle), a sensible high school swimmer and teenage dream, stuck in the midst of a divorce between his two self-absorbed parents. The audience journeys with Jasper as he finds himself in Deadland after he dives off a cliff into a lake. This senseless stunt was the same that killed his best friend and possible love interest Agnes moments earlier, who leapt to prove something to Jasper.
Jasper jumps to save her and possibly to “escape the noise in his head” at home. Thus begins the voyage to rescue Agnes. But it won’t be easy and neither is getting back. For starters, Jasper is a living being among dead souls and she’s dead, a lost spirit on her way to the “Elysium Delirium Destination” a.k.a. paradise. He needs help in higher places. Fortunately for him, he gets the assistance he desperately needs.
Upon meeting Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound of Deadland, Jasper must explain a concept almost unfamiliar to his current predicament: What is life? And off we go! As Jasper seeks admission and travels through the netherworld of Deadland, he comes into contact with fierce heart-chomping demons, factory drones damned for all eternity, and a gallery of interesting characters all with the help of a jaded tour guide named Gretchen (played with acerbic wit by Allison Scagliotti). Thus begins their long excursion through the six realms of the underworld (yes, six!). Unknown to them, time is ticking like a long lost heartbeat, and they’ll need an awful lot of luck: a fast-talking, power-hungry, megalomaniac CEO Mr. Lethe (played by the deliciously devilish Ben Crawford) whose sleazy and ornery desires include keeping the inhabitants of Deadland and those on Earth under his thumb.
Led by a transcendent sextet of thespians each morphing into various denizens of the underworld, Jasper In Deadland finds its bearings when the ensemble finally plunges into the underbelly of Deadland. Outrageously sidesplitting actress Bonnie Milligan is a standout, playing Dante’s Beatrix and the Norse goddess Hel with tenacity and heart. The prolific Andi Alhadeff’s big-voiced howl and moving portrayal of Pluto’s lover Persephone may inspire notions of future off-Broadway diva titles. Without a doubt, gospel-infused belting soprano Danyel Fulton raises the roof as Ammut with fearless fierceness. Rounding out the ensemble, Leo Ash Evens, John-Michael Lyles and F. Michael Haynie each give remarkable humorous, knee-slapping performances as they switch accents, quip laugh-out-loud funny asides and contort their limbs like ace dancers.
The true rock star, however, is Brandon Ivie, whose inventively staged direction brings to mind the fabulous ingenuity of “low budget” Broadway productions Nicholas Nickleby and Peter and the Starcatcher. Ivie’s stagecraft is fresh and sparse and scenes move fluidly as if orchestrated by the greatest of feng shui artists. Ivie’s adroit use of the modest set, along with Herrick Goldman’s astute lighting effects and the help of puppet designer Elizabeth Ostler, who invented a disturbing Cerberus’— unleash hell on an audience of wide-eyed theatergoers.
But that doesn’t mean the off-kilter show is perfect. Lorin Lararro’s high-energy choreography feels general and uninspired. Tony-nominated actor Hunter Foster has indeed created a fantasia of splendor and mystique, but his uneven book takes too long to get to the story at hand and once it gets there, suffers topsy-turvy plot points toward the end of the second act.
For those just looking for good clean fun, the tunes are catchy and may pave a path to greatness for rising star composer Ryan Scott Oliver, whose name has circled the downtown theater circuit for years. Played by a guitar-strumming quintet, the rich melodies and harmonies may provoke comparisons to the works of the Jonathan Larson (Rent) Tom Kitt (Next To Normal) and Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) trifecta, but at times lack perspective. Definitely a fun score to rock out to, the porosity of the songs aren’t clear at times, with lyrics blending into one another without time to reflect on what has been said. Yet, there are a few take away songs: “The Killing” is a thrilling and funny riot boi anthem, “Awful People” has a kind of whimsical Broadway baby charm and “Lifesong” is a soaring 11 o’clock number that may become a staple of cabaret shows this year.
Take the trip to Deadland, it will make your heart soar—or Ammut may just place it in her crockpot.
Jasper in Deadland
Presented by Prospect Theater Company
West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew
263 West 86th Street
Through April 13.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.