Previews: 05/09/12- Close: 06/24/12
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Aurin Squire
Daniel Terna ©2023 Chloe Patellis, Romain Rachline, Alexa Erbach and Emily Cannon-Brown
Musicals are a young man's sports these days. Stamina, speed, wit, and good ol' fashioned gusto are needed to capture an audience's short attention span. "Jack's Back" fits the mold perfectly with an exciting cast, catchy songs, and script filled with witty repartee. The locomotive musical is making its world premiere at the T. Schreiber Theatre and employs a 15-actor cast comprised of students and recent alums. Yet this is a work that would feel at home in an off-broadway space for an extended run. "Jack's Back" feels like what would happen if "Monty Python" got into bed with Gilbert & Sullivan.
The plot revolves around Victorian England's Whitechapel neighborhood and the killing spred of Jack the Ripper. This is hardly the stuff of musical comedies. But from the outset the director John Gould Rubin captures the absurdity of musical theatricality by playing up the red-ribbon-as-blood cliche. Rubin calls attention the contrived artifice of traditional musicals with repeated set design jokes including a chorus that is always carting out a well-timed bench to be sat on by lovers in mid-conversation or actor's breaking in mid-dance routine to notice that his partner 'always gets that part wrong.' What should be annoying meta-theatre moments works extremely well because the book and songs compliment the absurdity without laying it on too thick. Lyricist Tom Herman has crafted some outstanding songs that are hilarious, smart, and bubbly while only relying on a piano and keyboard. "Jack's Back" has many things which shouldn't work but do. The word play of character names, alliteration, and silly pratfalls is what gives the play the "Monty Python" mixture of dry wit and childish gags.
Herbert Wingate is the main character who makes his living as a sausage-stuffer and dreams of getting married and moving to America. But in England he is a working class loser whose pathetic schemes are constantly failing. Herbert is surrounded by a group of enabling friends who are alll hookers or drunks who hang out on the street or at the local pub. Herbert's mother, Martha Wingate, is an old-time prostitute who rejects pub owner John Green's offer of marriage because she 'likes her work too much.' But Martha is getting old and now -with Jack the Ripper on the loose- her days look numbered. Herbert figures he can protect his mother and get rich by capturing Jack the Ripper and collecting the bounty and devises a scheme in one of the funnier songs: "I'm Gonna Get Me Mother Off the Streets." Herbert decides to dress up as a prostitute and capture serial killer. But until he can set his trap, he has to deal with the problems of a 'woman of the night.' His mother gives him the hooker alias "Miss French" which is synonymous with the only sex act he's permitted to do while hiding his gender.
Not enough can be said in the small space of this review on the 15-actor cast. The chorus blended in and out of several characters, humorously helped set the mood in many places, and offered unmitigated support for their lovable loser/sausage-stuffing, cross-dressing, loosely heterosexual son. Martha Wingate is played by Arley Tapirian who blazes a trail of fire across the stage with her voice and body. David Donahoe brings Martha's jilted paramour and pub owner to life with his warmth and ease. Casey Shane shines as hapless Herbert and manages to work a Cockney accent with serious singing chops. Shane embodies the youthful fumbling spirit of a prodigal son with too many ideas and not enough common sense. Herbert's second-act song, "My Excellent Machine" that explains his Rube Goldberg device he's created to catch Jack the Ripper is a showstopper. The entire cast is employed to go through each step in the trap that involves a running pig, a startled chicken, frying fish and many other aspects just to trigger a mallet wacking Jack the Ripper on the head. The song's chorus is perfectly punctuated with the remark 'sounds easy enough.' His fiance is played by Julia Udine who is charming and has a stellar range as actress and singer.
Scotland Yard Detective Hugo Cummings is a small role but played with flair by Matthew Boyce who rolls his 'r's and prances about on stage while looking for the killer. There are several laugh out loud moments induced just by Boyce's serious dedication to playing his character's haughtiness to the hilt.
But the show stealing award goes to Lance Olds, who plays a charming, aristocratic Jack the Ripper with magician's hands and jazz dancer's feet. Jack is introduced with the deliciously ironic song "A Most Agreeable Fellow" with silky dance moves, a murderous gleam in his eyes, and a hypnotically smooth use of his surgeon's scalpel. Olds raises the hilarity and brillance to this opener by juggling a set of 3 knives while dancing and singing about his homicidal tendencies. I don't think I've ever seen anyone do that completely in rhythm, in tune, and while being effortlessly charming. Throughout the show Olds' "Jack" is a trickster who stays two steps ahead of the police, Herbert, and the entire community.
There must be a special mention of the spot-on, beautiful choreography by Bronwen Carson. The constable dance routine and Jack the Ripper's threesome with a disguised Herbert and Detective Cummings seem like the complex routines fit for a Broadway show. Carson uses the stage's different levels with a mixture of Fosse-lite jigs, balletic leaps, and pratfalls. The cast carries out all the dance routines and elaborate props with veteran aplomb.
"Jack's Back" isn't perfect and could stand for some tweaking. Many of the songs sound great but also similar in pick-up and delivery. Herman has perfected the composition of a standard Broadway showstopper, but a musical can't be made of too many showstoppers otherwise nothing stands out. This is, admittedly, a luxury problem to have but every scene in the first act has a song very similar structures. Even the lover's ballad has a bridge section that breaks out into a dance. Some times it would be nice to let the comedy that's in the book play out without the wind-up pitch into standard song. Furthermore the plot plays it soft (no pun intended) on how far Herbert is willing to go in pretending to be a prostitute. Victorian English culture was known for its people's fetishes and elaborate bedroom proclivities. This could have fit so well into a quick moment where Martha gives a quick run down on what people really want in sex. Instead, audiences get a standard "My Fair Lady" tutelage montage on how to talk, walk, and wear a wig like a lady. It's feels ho-hum and we've seen this 'how-to-be-a-lady' riff done countless times in movies and reality TV. The fact that it's a guy learning how to be a lady has also been seen in every cross-dressing comedy from "Tootisie" to "Mrs. Doubtfire." This musical has the special advantage in that Herbert isn't learning how to be a lady. He's learning how to be a Victorian hooker...and from his mother!
The end of the first act has no plot forward into the second act. The prostitutes, drunks, and Herbert all sing about being motivated to catch Jack the Ripper while the killer lurks about. But that was established at the beginning of the play so it feels like there isn't a compelling need for another song other than to highlight the enormous talent of the actors and lyricist. But their brilliance has already been established and it felt like the end of act one could have been a chance for a dramatic forward into Herbert's new schemes. This is where book writers Elmer Kline, Lee Cardini and Tom Herman could look at for fixing in future productions. it is a matter of offering structural polishes to a very funny musical. I must emphasize that these are tweaks and often revolve around the luxury problem of having so much good dancing, singing, and jokes that the musical could use some better pacing and arrangement in certain places.
All in all, "Jack's Back" deserves serious attention and praise. From choreography, to book, song, and acting the show is outstanding, fresh, and worth a look. Here's to hoping it has a successful run next season
T. Schreiber Studio Theatre : 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor