Theatre Is Easy: “I’ll Be Damned”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: A sweet and funny script, some decent musical-theatre jams, and a killer cast — I’ll Be Damned has a lot going for it, although it’s certainly not perfect. (It closes tomorrow, so get your tickets now.)

Mary Testa as Mom and Jacob Hoffman as Louis Foster in I’ll Be Damned. (photo by Carol Rosegg)

If Damn Yankees and The Wizard of Oz had a quirky love child, it would be I’ll Be Damned, the new musical by Brent Black and Rob Broadhurst, playing at the Vineyard by way of Jaradoa Theater. Centering on Louis Foster, a lovably nerdy comic book fanatic/man-child, I’ll Be Damned chronicles his search for the one thing he wants most in the world — a friend. On his 19th birthday the home-schooled and socially awkward hero is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance by Satan to sell his soul, and in return receive a best friend who understands him.

The Vineyard Theatre provides a comfortably large but not overpowering space for this show to thrive. With big choreography by Luis Salgado and frisky direction by April Nickell, the actors have plenty of room to indulge in their actions. A multitiered set is a useful playground for the bright comic book visuals. The production design is clever, though awkwardly lowbrow given the scope of the show and the talent.

I’m not sure how these fresh-out-of-grad-school writers scored such a savvy and experienced creative team, but props to them for hooking up with Jaradoa and for snagging Mary Testa and Kenita Miller as well as the incredibly talented Kurt Robbins. Testa, as Mom, relishes in every comedic moment and her voice is reliably wonderful. Miller, as Friendetta, is the scrappy comic book figment of Louis’s mind come to life; she’s a powerhouse. Robbins, as Satan, gets the humor in his character and sings the crap out of his part as well. Jacob Hoffman, as Louis, is perfect as the geeky lead; he plays dorky quite well but still maintains a leading-man quality. The ensemble also contributes without a weak link.

The plot, though relatively obvious, is well paced, active, and rife with opportunities for one-liners and nerd humor as well as comic book allegories. It feels slightly long at two hours (plus intermission) but is nevertheless engaging. What’s lacking, however, is the emotional hold necessary to connect the audience to the action onstage. The “Why should I care?” factor weighs heavily throughout this colorful romp.

I’ll Be Damned isn’t really sure what it wants to be in terms of style — there are moments that feel incredibly campy, and then there are times that feel like sincere musical theatre. It’s not that a show can’t have both elements and still feel cohesive, but the disconnect here is jarring rather than diverse. I’d personally prefer a no-holds-barred campfest any day.

All of that aside, the charm and sincerity of I’ll Be Damned are inarguable. The show’s run is short, probably intentionally so; I can’t imagine this is intended to be the final product. So with rewrites and a tightening of the script, I could see it having a successful run later on. The music is pretty great across the board; “Welcome to Hell” and “Let It Rain” are downright catchy tunes. And I’ll Be Damned is an original musical, which earns my respect right off the bat. I look forward to future incarnations.

I’ll Be Damned plays at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., through Sunday, July 18. Performances are Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, and Sun 3 PM. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For more information visit jaradoatheater.org, and for more theatre reviews visit theasy.com.