Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bastard Jones: A Quippy Comedy

Currently playing at The Cell Theater in Chelsea is Bastard Jones (official site), a new musical by Marc Acito (Allegience) and Amy Engelhardt. It is based on Henry Fielding's picaresque novel, The History Of Tom Jones, which might be described as Don Giovanni meets Candide.

One of the comic highlights of the show came before the first (technically non-existent) curtain, when Rene Ruiz, who would later assume the character of Partridge, gave his variation on the standard "turn off your cell phones" announcement. Throughout the performance, Ruiz acted as an emcee and stand-up comic, delivering comic asides and puns to the audience, commenting on the action throughout. One-liners like "I'd swear off drinking, but it's not polite to swear" abound. (When he later entered the story at the end of Act I, he added made-up Latin phrases to his list of comic devices.)

As the action begins, Tom Jones, the illegitimate ward of a squire, is a notorious womanizer, who, despite his habits, is legitimately in love with Sophia Shepherd, the daughter of a priest. (It is at this point I began to think: "This is going to be Grease, isn't it?") When Tom is implicated in a scandal by his foster brother Blifil, he is sent away from home. Sophia goes out searching for him, and the two cross paths in a series of misunderstandings the "will they or won't they"-ness of which ends up feeling more tired than Ross and Rachel. Along the way they meet a colorful cast of characters, all of whom somehow end up being connected, and ultimately all ends happily.

The script lacks polish, with many character motivations being unclear (Harriet is a particular victim of this) and a general lack of aim in the story (for instance, how Allworthy sings a dramatic reprise of "I Must Away," and then proceeds to do nothing until half the cast come rushing to his door). Many of the songs feel like re-trodden ground, with "Blifil's Kissoff" evoking the end of "Trial By Pilate," "Nil Desperandum" being a jazzed-up version of "Hakuna Matata," and even "Tingle" having much the same conceipt as Rossini's "Contro Un Cor." At the same time, despite evoking feelings of more famous songs, the individual songs of Bastard Jones by and large failed to impress. Comedy songs are difficult to write without falling into cliche, especially at length, and the songs of Bastard Jones suffer from this. "I Must Away," for instance, falls flat quickly, because after Sophia has listed in rhyme all the various ways she could kill herself, where do you go from there?

All the same, there is much fun to be had. Most of the comedy, for me at least, came in the form of the puns, quips, and one-liners delivered primarily by Partridge, but also many of the other characters. (As an example, one particularly groan-worthy joke, uttered in a ball scene, I must echo here: "What are you doing here?" "The minuet!") There was also a good deal of slapstick, but never to the point that it felt overdone. In some ways, I feel this show may have been more successful as a play, with no songs to slow down the jokes.

The cast are particular highlights. In addition to the aforementioned Rene Ruiz, Alie Gorie played two important and unrecognizable roles as Molly Seagrim and Harriet Fitzpatrick, earning many laughs in one role, and much pity in the other. Cheryl Stern was a comedic highlight in all her assorted supporting roles, and Elena Wang as Sophia was refreshingly sympathetic (possibly the only entirely sympathetic character in the show) but not above slapstick. And, of course, I have to mention Evan Ruggiero as the titular Tom Jones, who played the role with appropriate flair, although his voice was weak at points. Of note is Ruggiero's very real wooden leg, which was worked ingeniously into the staging, including in a wonderfully choreographed sword fight.

As a drama, Bastard Jones needs a polish and a trim. As a comedy, it is an enjoyable enough farce, though it is a bit bawdy (at a level about on par with Heathers: The Musical). It does not take itself seriously, and even indulges in a sort of self-aware over-the-top-ness which might be best characterized by cheesy cult musicals such as Rocky Horror and Reefer Madness, and with some tweaks, I could see Bastard Jones developing a similar cult status, although probably not to the same level. Ultimately it comes down to what you want in a musical. Bastard Jones does not hold up to musical farces like Anything Goes and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but for puns, quips, and slapstick, it's not a bad choice.

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