Mary Testa as Mom and Jacob Hoffman as Louis Foster in I'll Be Damned. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A sweet and funny script, some decent musical theatre jams and a killer cast; I'll Be Damned has a lot going for it, although it's certainly not perfect.
If Damn Yankees and The Wizard of Oz had a quirky love child, it would be I'll Be Damed, the new musical by Brent Black and Rob Broadhurst, playing at the Vineyard by way of Jaradoa Theatre. Centering around Louis, the lovably nerdy comic-book fanatic man-child, I'll Be Damned chronicles Louis's search for the one thing he wants most in the world - a friend. On his 19th birthday, the home-schooled and socially awkward hero is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance by Satan - to sell his soul and in return, receive a best friend who understands him.
The Vineyard Theatre provides a comfortably large (but not overpowering) space for this show to thrive. With big choreography by Luis Salgado and frisky direction by April Nickell, the actors have plenty of room to indulge in their actions. A multi-tiered set is a useful playground for the bright, comic book visual. The production design is clever, though awkwardly low-brow given the scope of the show and the talent.
I'm not sure how these fresh-out-of-grad-school writers scored such a savvy and experienced creative team, but props to them for hooking up with Jaradoa and for snagging Mary Testa and Kenita Miller, as well as the incredibly talented Kurt Robbins. Testa (as Mom) relishes in every comedic moment and her voice is reliably wonderful. Miller (as Friendetta) is the scrappy comic book figment of Louis's mind come to life; she is a powerhouse. Robbins (as Satan) gets the humor in his character and sings the crap out of his part as well. Jacob Hoffman (as Louis) is perfect as the geeky lead; he plays dorky quite well but still maintains a leading man quality. The ensemble also contributes without a weak link.
The plot, though relatively obvious, is well-paced, active, and rife with opportunities for one-liners and nerd humor as well as comic book allegories. It feels slightly long at two hours (plus intermission) but is nevertheless engaging. What's lacking, however, is the emotional hold necessary to connect the audience to the action on stage. The "why should I care" factor weighs heavily throughout this colorful romp.
I'll Be Damned isn't really sure what it wants to be in terms of style - there are moments that feel incredibly campy and then there are times that feel like sincere musical theatre. It's not that a show can't have both elements and still feel cohesive, but the disconnect here is jarring rather than diverse. I'd personally prefer a no-holds-barred camp fest any day.
All of that aside, the charm and sincerity of I'll Be Damned is inarguable. This run is short and probably intentionally so. I can't imagine this is intended to be the final product. So with re-writes and tightening of the script, I could see this show having a successful run later on. The music is pretty great across the board. "Welcome to Hell" and "Let it Rain" are downright catchy tunes. And it is an original musical, which earns my respect right off the bat. I look forward to future incarnations.
(I'll Be Damned plays at The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, through July 18, 2010. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. For more information, visit jaradoatheater.org.)