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A CurtainUp Review
I'll Be Damned
Initially conceived by its musical collaborators Rob Broadhurst (music & book) and Brent Black (lyrics & book) in the Graduate Musical Theatre Program at NYU, I'll Be Damned appears to be this well-meaning, community service-motivated young company's most ambitious project. The simple production design by Sean Tribble works efficiently, as it consists of several levels of platforms and some artfully drawn lluminated signs. I have some issues with the mishmash of religiosity and fantasy, the indecisive consideration of sexual orientation, and the more wacky than wise look at the parent-child relationship that propel the show. However, it largely fulfills its mission to delight and entertain. It's actually a fine example of what can happen when a funny, whimsical, and assertively allegorical musical with a message is placed in the charge of a very talented cast. Would that many an adult oriented musical could accomplish this trick.
Louis Foster (Jacob Hoffman), I'll Be Damned's hero is 19 years old. That he has the maturity of a 9 year-old is the least troubling aspect of his personality. Louis is seen not only as an entrapped momma's boy but also a product of his mother's home-schooling. There is more than a hint that home-schooling has not helped Louis confront his lack of social skills or his inability to be liked and accepted by his peers.
Friendless and lonely, Louis has hopes and dreams ("Things Are Gonna Change Today") of inviting one hundred friends to his "awesome"” birthday party at the skating rink. How is Louis going to make this happen? Better yet, how is Satan going to make this happen for him and see that he gets what he wants? Louis is a ripe candidate for a visit from Satan (as played with a refreshing normalcy by Kurt Robbins) who finds out that Louis is "God's favorite" and loses no time in trying to get his soul.
Satan has his own agenda and a mission that includes a visit back to Heaven where the angels wiggle and to Hell where the demons writhe with choreographed aplomb. It's also show-time in Heaven for a decidedly sassy God (Gregory Treco) "I can make a star, I can end the world…but all I really want is good company. Is that so much to ask? Angels are not good company, " which leads to a rousing gospel number.
But it's on Earth where Louis and Satan have the most fun as they try unsuccessfully to find the perfect friend. But watch out for Louis's smothering over-protective, loud mouthed and a very Catholic imbibed Mom. She is played by the always wonderful Mary Testa. A single mom by choice, she even announces that she has plans, following a hilarious home graduation ceremony attended only by her and Louis, to start him on college undergraduate courses so that he won't leave home. I like the way that the musical deals deftly, in a way young people will understand why some women might choose to have children without the benefit of husband and/or of marriage.
Testa has a voice that reaches Heaven and Hell. She is also a born scene stealer. But she gets plenty of competition from Hoffman, who is terrific as the hyper-insecure motor-mouthed Louis. His bright singing, agility and all encompassing musical and comedic range remind me of a budding Danny Kaye. It seems that Louis has a talent for drawing and has created Friendetta, a rather unique comic book hero (actually a heroine who gets to materialize in a very snappy pink and yellow costume avec chapeau) who doesn't fight crime but instead finds friends for people. She has a stirring duet, "Nobody's Hero," with Mom.
The collaborators have taken their cue from the famed stories of paying the price for selling your soul to the devil that extends from the legend of Faust to the musical Damn Yankees. They have come up with their own fantasy about a young innocent who, desperate to find a friend, eagerly makes a pact with Satan. Louis's limited social life revolves around a group of "cool" peers he regularly sees at the local comic book store where he has a part time job. He tries to be unaware of their dislike of him.
The story builds on the budding relationship that develops between Louis and Satan, or as mom sees it, "My poor boy lost his soul to a handsome man who turned out to be Satan." Nevertheless, Louis and Satan work as a team to reclaim their souls and to convince God (don't ask) to stop the flood and save the world in a rousing finale. The supporting cast has much to be proud of playing multiple roles with great verve and energy.
Perhaps a bit overly hokey and overlong (some judicious cutting would help for future productions), I'll Be Damned is, nevertheless, a joyous music and message-filled introduction to a company that aspires to inspire.