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A CurtainUp Review
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower)

With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
I was sent to school and encouraged to study literature, but I preferred the obscure poetry of these cheaply printed pamphlets.— Immanuel
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island
Jody Flader as GinGin and Matt Pearson as Samson (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
"I left humming the scenery" is a snippy comment attributed to a critic of yore whose name escapes me (see ** at end of review). 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 this 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.

review continues below

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 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 élan, as Sampson. Steggert is excellent as the enamored, but literature-challenged Immanuel. Stephen Lee Anderson, as a business man 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?

**Editor's Note: One of our readers, Michael Cove, was kind enough to shed some additional note on the opening reference to humming the scenery (though other readers may well come up with other occasions when this expressionwas used): "The critic was, as I am sure many correspondents have rushed to note, Bernard Levin referring to Sean Kenny's sets for Lionel Bart's Blitz. What I can't confirm is that he said "humming the sets", a still, small voice thinks it may have been "whistling." Mr Saltzman may (or may not) be pleased to have his knowledge of the quote completed."
SomeAdditional Thoughts

Having just spent three evening seeing new Off-Broadway musicals , I'm delighted to note how much original work is being created and shown. Not a jukebox musical in the lot. Not a recycled, re-hashed idea that you can fault for sitcom-ish or purposeless plots.

The ingenuity with which Katchor's cartoon world was projected onto movable scrim panels is nothing short of brilliant. In the final analysis, despite Simon's valid and persuasive praise for plot and characters as well as the incredibly inventive scenic design, I found that the scenery really did steal the show and I'll probably retain more vivid memories of the colorful images than any of these characters. Also, while a lot of lyricists tend to stretch single syllable words into two syllable words, I found this to be so overdone here that it severely tested my tolerance for what Simon referred to as "the tenacity of the recitative."

While my nitpicks are minor in the face of Simon's well supported thumbs up review, the use of unsightly headmikes in a small theater like the Vineyard is a major deficit, and an affront to Mr. Katchor's beautiful visual work. How is it that it's become impossible to let performers make use of their natural vocal powers even in intimate venues like this and in musicals with small bands? Even if amplification IS needed, I've seen less visible and more subtle devices used with less objectionable sight and sound effects. Perhaps Dr. Rushower can make it his next cause to replace the the mikes strapped to his and his friends heads with less visible and less soundspoiling "slugs"

The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower
Libretto and Drawings by Ben Katchor
Music by Mark Mulcahy
Directed by Bob McGrath
Choreography by John Carrafa
Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson (George Klatter), Tom Riis Farrell (Butler/Pilot), Jody Flader (GinGin), Peter Friedman (Dr. Rushower), Matt Pearson (Samson), Bobby Steggert (Immanuel Lubang) and Will Swenson (Psychiatrist/Dry Cleaner).
Band: Erik James, Stew Cutler, Paul Ossola, Denny McDermott
Set and Projection Design: Jim Findley & Jeff Sugg
Costume Design: Mattie Ulrich
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Sound Design: David Arnold & Brett Jarvis
Musical Direction: Erik James
Musical Supervisor: Randall Eng
BAND: Piano, Erik James; Guitar, Stew Cutler; Acoustic/Electric Bass, Paul Ossola;Drums, Denny McDermott
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
(212) 353 0303
Performances 01/25/08 — 03/02/08--extended after good reviews, to 3/16/08
Opening night 02/12/08
Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesdays — Saturdays at 8 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 PM.
Tickets ($60) Student Rush 2 hours prior to curtain ($20).
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/10/08

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Hi, It's Me/The Doctor's Explanation
  • GinGin's Song
  • The Birth of Immanuel Lubang
  • Last Christmas/The Mating Behavior of Gulls
  • Your Coat Will Be Ready at 9
  • Lumin Rushower Is My Name
  • Is There Something I Should Know About?
  • Can Someone Get the Phone?
  • In Bed Early Tonight
  • The Psychiatrist's House Call
  • The Friends of Dr. Rushower
  • They're Not Like You and I
Act Two
  • An Ice Cream In A Root-Beer Float
  • George Klatter Was Right/Stay On The Path
  • The Story of Samson Layaway
  • Kayrol Cola (and the Bubbles)
  • The Tent Meeting
  • Where Were You All Night?
  • You Say She's Happy
  • Shhh! We're Trying to Listen!

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