Super Claudio Bros., The New Video Game Musical

Studio Theatre – Mead Theatre, 1501 P Street NW

Remaining Performances:

Saturday, July 24, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, July 25, 3:00 p.m.

(Plus a four-show post-Fringe revival at the Warehouse.)

They Say: “This new musical comedy takes our heroes – and an ass kicking princess – on a quest to overcome man-eating plants, spiky killer mushrooms, and a neurotic, love-starved homicidal purple platypus. Features original animation, puppets and eggplants!”

Glen’s Take: Look: I expected the po-mo jokes.

I expected there’d be ample electronic sound and music cues to push the audience’s collective nostalgia button, and that the dramatis personae would be recognizable, yet tweaked just enough to keep the Nintendo cease-and-desist letters at bay.  I even suspected, given the subject, that the 11-o’clock number would likely involve existential, “are our lives just a videogame?” sort of questions. I mean it’s a Fringe musical about a pop-culture fixture; there’s kind of a formula.

What I didn’t expect is that co-authors Marshall Pailet and Drew Fornarola wouldn’t be content to simply riff on the Mario Bros. games of their (well: my) youth, but instead interrogate those games to the extent they have here. This is some serious-ass 8-bit dramaturgy, up in here; these guys have meditated on the frickin’ text; the fact that the text in question is an NES cartridge instead of, say, Love’s Labours Lost is immaterial. The result is clever and ironic, yes, but it’s not merely clever and ironic — it’s a fully imagined, well-realized piece of work about love, death and stomping on fungi.

“So,” I imagine some of you who prefer more meaty and/or difficult Fringe fare sniffing, “it’s just nerdy in-jokes, then.  Nothing to do with art,” (in my imagination, you at this point toss one end of your scarf over your bird-boned shoulder), “or with me.”  (In my imagination, you then attempt to steer the conversation toward your movement class.)

Three points:

1.  Very fine, or at least very fun, evenings of theater have been molded from the base clay that is nerdy in-jokes.

2.  In my imagination, you are kind of a dick.

3.  Even if you’ve never exploited the Minus World Glitch yourself, there’s something here for you.

Why? Because the script is smart, the songs are strong, but this particular staging is even smarter, and stronger.

Yes, I’m talking about the puppets. Not just Dian M. Perez’s creations themselves — though they are great — but how they’re used: As the Goomba-esque puppets tromp across the stage toward Steven Gregory Smith‘s Claudio, their handlers’ faces flush with evil intent; once stomped (in admirable sync with Nick Upchurch‘s sound cues), their handlers slink offstage, dejected, defeated.

That’s the only visual joke I’m going to spoil here, but rest assured that Super Claudio Bros. is full of ’em, each one earning from the audience peals of laughter and/or annoying expository whispers, i.e.: “Those’r the rising platforms from the second world!”

It’s the casting, though — which reads like the DC musical theater producer’s wishlist it likely was — which particularizes a show that constantly threatens to devolve into Big Kampy Komedy Broadness. Sam Ludwig‘s Luis is all deadpan asides; Smith’s Claudio threads the pompous/world-weary needle believably; Lauren Williams undercuts her sudsy Broadway vocal chops with coolly ironic comic timing, and Matthew A. Anderson‘s evil-platypus-as-New-Jersey-crime-boss keeps events grounded, believe it or not.

If the songs aren’t immediately memorable, it may have something to do that many feature rhymes which seem to sit in odd, counterintuitive places in the verse. Ambitious, yes — but lacking the clean, simple, gleeful power Chris Sizemore puts into his stage-ending ditty, “The Princess is Not Here.”

Chop-chop, people.

See it if: You get why a character’s observation that there are only two choices in life (“A” or “B”) earns the laughter of recognition, and not the fruity existential kind.

Skip it if: Your thumbs have lived soft, pampered, uncalloused lives.