“Awful people are sent to the throne” in the Underworld just as in real life, apparently. Jasper’s life as a teen is surrounded by awful people– manipulative parents, empty-brained jocks, even the guidance counselor plays Candy Crush during their meetings. He literally has no one on his side besides his best friend Agnes, which kind of explains (more on that later) why when Agnes dives off a cliff to prove her love for him, Jasper goes right after her.
For some reason, Jasper survives the fall (he has dived off that cliff many times before) but ends up in the Underworld, which… has never happened to him on all those previous jumps. Jasper in Deadland is full of gaping plot holes like this and wading through them feels a bit like navigating your way through Deadland yourself. Also missing from Jasper’s narrative is clarity on his relationship to Agnes. Judging from the opening song, ‘Hello, Jasper!” which reminded me a lot of the opening song of that ever-classic Goofy Movie, I thought that Jasper wanted nothing to do with Agnes. Without ever seeing Agnes herself, we learn that she recently expressed her feelings for Jasper and they went unrequited. Jasper, it seems, wants to distance himself from Agnes as much as possible. But then she decides to prove her love by… diving off a cliff? Okay. And what exactly is Jasper’s game plan for getting a dead Agnes back to the realm of the living? Not sure.
Thankfully, writers Hunter Foster (book) and Ryan Scott Oliver (music and lyrics) fill Jasper in Deadland with plenty of other reasons to stick around. Firstly, they mash-up a bunch of mythic Underworld gods as hurdles for Jasper, and each is executed to hilarious effect. Like Jasper’s real world, they’re pretty much all awful people. There’s an existential Cerberus, sexy heart-eater Ammut, a rock-star Osiris, and several more guest appearances from other mythic/theological sources. The most entertaining of the gods are definitely Hel and Loki from Norse mythology, whose operatic refrains about dirty pranks and ridiculous turn-ons make for the highlights of the show.
Deadland‘s music and lyrics are also some of the best I’ve heard all year. The choral compilations are particularly impressive. When the company comes together as a whole, their combined voices and range lift the show to new heights. Director Brandon Ivie’s and choreographer Lorin Latarro’s combined efforts also make for an extraordinarily well-paced, wonderfully-staged, and effortlessly energetic production. As the title star, Matt Doyle brings his Broadway credentials to a much smaller stage, but the rest of the cast is just as exceptional in their multiple roles.
The target audience of the show is certainly theatergoers under 35, and the audience at my show were largely in that group. What confused me most about the show, however is that for such a youthful and energetic production, the writers certainly don’t seem to have a great opinion of youth culture. As mentioned before, there aren’t many likeable characters and Jasper isn’t exactly a hero himself. Add to this the fact that the book and lyrics repeatedly mention how degrading social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are to young minds. It can sometimes feel like an aunt or uncle wagging the finger at younger generations…while dressed in apparel from Forever 21.
Jasper in Deadland plays through April 13 at the West End Theater at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. Tickets here!