A Brief History Of The Earth And Everything In It: No One Can Resist a Subversive Musical!

briefEver since Book of Mormon became a runaway hit, skewering a religious viewpoint via musical theater seems almost de rigueur, but this is fertile ground and Elemental Theatre’s latest iteration of their evolving (yes, evolving) musical, A Brief History Of The Earth And Everything In It does it better than most. Motif’s publisher briefly considered allowing a two-word, slightly profane review that summed up not only this reviewer’s singular reaction, but the unanimous adoration of audiences so far. However, writing “F***ING AWESOME” alone would not only be lazy, it would do little to elaborate on a cleverly written and produced musical about a musical attacking Tea Party creationism myths while being horribly self-aware about its own process.

A Brief History… has a history of its own, written by actor/musician David Rabinow with Victoria Dorazio, and first staged in 2011 in a shorter form by Elemental as part of the Go.Go.5 festival in Providence. This time around, the play is expanded to full show length, presented at The Gamm and directed by Trinity Rep’s Tyler Dobrowsky who previously directed The Big Meal in the same space. Some original cast members return (Casey Seymour Kim and Kelly Seigh) joined by a quite perfect cast of performers from various companies around the state. The plot itself and how it is presented are not quite revolutionary – imagine 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as interpreted by Monty Python and you’ll see a lot of Rabinow’s influences, but what fantastic influences they are. Rhode Island is lucky enough to have a wealth of quirky and inventive new works to see and many of them are musicals (actually, see Veja Doolittle at Wilbury Group in a 2-1 offer when you buy a ticket for either show), but Rabinow’s work here is far and away the one to see if you’ve been hesitant to try out something unfamiliar.

The students of William Jennings Bryan Elementary are threatened by the fundamentalist Christian leanings of their Principal, Dr. Godfrey Marsden (a wonderfully twisted and downright gross Tom Chace) who has just thrown his hat in the ring for a gubernatorial run. As we learn, even in the lobby, “Dr. God” has more than influenced the curriculum with Biblically themed lunches, levels of detention and offerings such as “One plus One plus One = 1: Algebra and the Holy Trinity.” The 3rd graders, led by the class cool kid, Derek (Gamm company member Karen Carpenter) decide to enlist the help of hippy-dippy drama teacher Ms. Lopiccolo (a spaced-out, yet deliciously fierce Melissa Penick) and stage a subversive musical in front of the school, the parents and the voters to counteract Dr. Godfrey’s Tea Party dogma.

For the better part of 90 minutes, this is exactly what Derek and friends manage to do, but it’s not as easy as a pageant of pure left-wing Palin bashing, although there is plenty of that as well. Rabinow is clever enough to frame his debates through some well-balanced filters and even one of his protagonists, the horribly precocious Maya, loudly asserts, “You have to play within the system!” and improvises a number called “Intelligent Design” to keep the entire show from being shut down by the increasingly furious Marsden. The number is played straight and, on its own terms, presents a quite reasoned argument for that point of view (it helps that Kristin Elliott’s Maya is so perfectly realized and engaging that she could have sang the phone book and made us want to hear it). Once again, the Monty Python influence is felt where reasoned arguments often come from left (or right) field and encourage us to think, even where some may fundamentally disagree. And that’s the point.

No one in A Brief History… escapes praise, including BTC Artistic Director Jeff Church who chews more scenery than actually exists on this sparse stage as Max Horowitz, channeling his 8-year-old Beastie Boy into our hearts. Kelly Seigh’s homeschooled, manatee-loving Presley Turtledove is scarily familiar and swings wildly back and forth between cuddly and terrifying. Casey Seymour Kim has a slight edge at stealing the whole piece while being the most restrained as the British-born Turner Mackenzie, a foil for everything uber-American and the voice of reason insofar as the personification of Jethro Tull’s Gerald Bostock can be (look it up). Aaron Andrade comes in toward the end in a role so ultimately satisfying that it would be a disservice to elaborate further.

In a show that seems light on production value (which, also like Spelling Bee, makes it a natural to stage, and like Spelling Bee, should be staged again and again), the design work is subtle but effective in spades. Most notably, Angelica Vessella’s choreography is punchy and clever and combines childish simplicity with Broadway pizzazz. Marc Tiberiis II, notably of Out Loud Theatre, combines simple lighting design with clever effects during several of Dobrowsky’s deliciously staged flashback sequences, which give us the backstory to the day of the musical itself.

This is one of those shows where note-taking falls by the wayside, so that even a critic can simply sit and revel in such a production. One wonders, of course, if Rabinow and company are simply preaching to the choir, but the writing is too deft and the arguments so well-played, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not at least acknowledging the ideas and reasoning presented. Again, very much like Python (particularly in Meaning of Life), the answers to everything are offered up, but are maddeningly simple. In the end, what we really know is that we laughed a lot and were entertained non-stop for an hour and a half by questions of “the tensions between humanism, faith and politics, as seen from the vantage point of precocious elementary schoolers.” How? Through Musical Theater.

That’s the key to the success here, both as a script and as a plot device. A straight comedy (or God forbid a drama) about these issues would be ponderous, but this show approaches perfection in its form and execution. And why? Well, as Ms.Lopiccolo’s kids tell us, “No one can resist a musical!”

Intelligent design, indeed.

Elemental Theatre Collective remounts A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EARTH AND EVERYTHING IN IT…by Dave Rabinow, June 19-29. All shows are at The Gamm Theatre (172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI). Shows at 8:00pm (Sundays at 2:00pm). All tickets are $20, payable with cash, check or credit card at the door, or via Brown Paper Tickets. Information available at www.elementaltheatre.org or by calling (401) 447-3001.

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