“Claudio Quest” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival” at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (Closed Thursday July 16, 2015)

Book, Music and Lyrics by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet
Directed by John Tartaglia
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Theatregoers have had a decent dose of the epic video game Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo) in the recent past. The Fringe NYC 2014 featured “Jump Man – A Mario Musical” which garnered the Fringe Excellent Award for Best Musical. And “Claudio Quest,” currently running at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, had its first incarnation at DC’s Fringe Festival in July 2010. Fortunately for the audiences at NYMF 2015, this current retelling of the Mario Brothers epic journeys is quite good.

Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet have put real meat on the pixelated bones of the familiar video game characters. These characters are well developed, believable and have been given equally authentic conflicts the audience can readily identify with. These conflicts drive an interesting plot than layers upon the game’s “here we come to save the day” theme and support a matrix of important themes for the contemporary audience. These include the rivalry between siblings (“No matter what you do you’ll still be stuck as player number two.”) and the redefinition of sex-role stereotypes (“Oh, so there’s only one way to be a Princess?”).

Claudio (played with a charming strength and vigor by CJ Eldred) faces the challenges of being a hero with a limited number of lives and having to save Princess Poinsettia (played with the right mixture of pout and punch by Leslie McKinnell) over and over again (as many times as a player sets or resets the game!). Luis (played with a disarming and charming vulnerability by Ethan Slater) wonders what it would be like to be player number one and fall in love with Princess Fish (played with just the right amount of feisty humility by Lindsey Brett Carothers). All of these characters live with the constant threat of attacks from the “bad guy” Bruiser the platypus with the big (you guessed right) heart. Broadway veteran Andre Ward owns the stage every time he enters as the poorly misunderstood Bruiser who needs weekly therapy to get in touch with his inner self. Mr. Ward is a powerhouse of an actor and singer and brings exuberance and joy to this splendid production. His “The Platypus Song” is perhaps the highlight of the musical.

The six member ensemble is uniformly competent and exciting to watch. Their combined voices adequately support the cast and their puppetry skills are beyond commendable. The puppet design by Michael Schupbach and The Puppet Kitchen bring the video game pranksters to adorable (and sometimes frightening) life.

There might be little that is new in “Claudio Quest” but this does not detract from this musical’s ability to entertain and challenge the audience with rich and enduring questions about right and wrong, good and evil, and the importance of significant human relationships. John Tartaglia’s staging is brilliant and Mr. Fornarola’s and Mr. Pailet’s music is engaging and supports the book with a variety of musical styles and genres.

The connection to Eggplant Kingdom and the perils of saving a country one loves in non-gaming time is rich and makes “Claudio Quest” a musical to keep one’s eye on.