When theater pundits talk about the future of Broadway and the new generation of composers, they’re talking about artists like Ryan Scott Oliver, a rising talent whose songs have become a staple of the cabaret and YouTube circuit. Now Off Broadway’s Prospect Theater Company is presenting one of his first full-scale musicals, Jasper in Deadland, an electrifying surge of theatrical energy that has the potential to wake up New York from its deep creative sleep.
The story, based ever so loosely on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, follows dreamy teenager Jasper (the miraculous Matt Doyle, recently of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) as he travels to the otherworldly ”Deadland” to rescue his best friend, who fell to her death from a cliff. Led by the implausibly good Doyle, the lead performances are gorgeously sung and played with surprising honesty, even among the villains (with the voice of a thousand angelic baritones, Ben Crawford stands out as a literally satanic CEO).
But the real triumphs here are the lively inhabitants of Deadland, played by a virtuosic sextet of actors who morph into everything from Norse gods and heart-eating divas to the three heads of Cerberus and eternally damned factory drones. Each hard-working ensemble member demonstrates versatile comedy chops and an uncanny mastery of character that makes Jasper such a consistently captivating fantasy tale.
Oliver’s score is a thrilling pop-rock suite that’s likely to earn comparisons to Duncan Sheik, Tom Kitt, or even Jonathan Larson. But the splendid genre-bending of Jasper deserves its own quasi-category (standout songs like ”Living Dead” and ”Stroke by Stroke” have already become familiar material in certain theater circles, and rightly so). Director Brandon Ivie makes clever use of the simple set, creating an effectively sprawling, stylish Deadland in the decidedly tiny space (aided by Herrick Goldman?s shrewd lighting).
The fledgling show isn’t perfect. Hunter Foster’s uneven book relies too heavily on flat pop culture references, and the show briefly wades through some muddled plotting halfway through the second act. Lorin Latarro’s high-energy choreography don’t always suit the character, teetering dangerously close to boy-band territory at times. Yet flaws aside, the production (running through April 13 at the West End Theater) marks the arrival of Oliver as a major new voice in musical theater. A?