The Human Race Theatre Company enters its 31st season with the American premiere of composer/librettist Andrea Daly and lyricist/librettist Jeff Bienstock’s charmingly relatable and delightfully tuneful musical Legendale, an original story of a disillusioned gamer escaping the monotony of the real world by embracing the exciting camaraderie of the virtual world.
Twentysomething IT manager Andy survives everyday boredom and stresses by playing the titular online role-playing game even at his thankless job at Magnets “n” More. After all, in Legendale, Andy is the master of his domain, calling the shots and attempting new levels and challenges. In fact, the thought of winning a new competition with the grand prize of a million dollars and the title “Lord of Legendale” has him poised for greatness. However, when saddled with competing as a milkmaid (all other avatars were taken) his hopes are quickly deflated. But along the way, and from an unlikely source, Andy discovers the value of perseverance and self-esteem as romance and adventure spark refreshing possibilities.
Daly and Bienstock jump-started Legendale in 2015 when the show was featured in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Works. Following a December 2016 workshop at the Human Race, it received its world premiere at Denmark’s Fredericia Teater. As it currently stands, the best attribute of the material, outside the realm of introducing musical theater to an untapped niche market, is its pop-infused if ballad-heavy score. Standouts include fantastic opener When We Play, introspective Dead Again, catchy anthem Lord of Legendale, striking duets Here and Now and Anticipation, and spirited Why Not Me? The score is splendidly orchestrated by Tony Award winner Bruce Coughlin (The Light in the Piazza, one of the most gorgeously orchestrated musicals of all time).
On the other hand, the book is underdeveloped. Andy is a likable focal point with palpable strife, but his scope is oddly limited. Whenever Andy is in Legendale, marvelously and inventively conceived by projection designer David Bengali (Dear Evan Hansen), the kookiness of the avatars and their situations only appeal for brief periods. As so, there needs to be additional investment in Andy and his backstory. Who is he? What makes him tick? What happened in his life pre-Legendale? He’s certainly more than a mere gamer and his journey should address matters greater than the fascination of online game culture. Perhaps the appearance of a Young Andy or Andy’s parents would better address any semblance of a past. Further, perhaps Andy shouldn’t live alone. It would be interesting to see his existence expand to include a roommate or an ex-girlfriend. Daly and Bienstock pepper their script with sound ideas recalling Dear Evan Hansen, She Loves Me, The Wizard of Oz, and Grey Gardens, but they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of millennials seeking connection in the digital age.
Nonetheless, off-Broadway director/choreographer John Simpkins, Head of Musical Theatre at Penn State University, brings Legendale forth with considerable style, skillfully contrasting the real and fantasy domains, particularly Legendale’s funny eccentricities. Simpkins’ entertaining, fully committed cast is also a plus. Max Crumm (Danny Zuko in Broadway’s 2007 Grease revival and Scott in the short-lived 2016 musical Disaster!) terrifically embodies the introverted, insecure and geeky Andy, conveying social detachment and the budding hope of relationship with endearing, nuanced finesse. Abby Church, perky and personable, engagingly captures the extremely specific vernacular and physicality of the Legendale universe as comical milkmaid-turned-fierce warrior Zelayna, Andy’s avatar and girl power sidekick. Rachel Flynn exudes lovely sensitivity as timid temp Beth, Andy’s co-worker who shares more in common with him than he initially realizes. Jesse Sharp, an exceptional Gomez Addams in the national tour of The Addams Family, supplies goofy charisma as grandstanding and devious Legendale creator Paul Jansen who particularly persuades Andy to join his tech-savvy team in Silicon Valley. (However, Jansen’s introductory number, I Make the Magic, could be cut.) Travis Mitchell is appropriately hardcore as Steve, Andy’s annoying boss. Nathan Robert Pecchia, Cody Westbrook and Colin Hodgkin, an excellently versatile trio connected to Wright State University, playfully appear in various roles from energetic gamers to freaky brain-craving zombie robots.
Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s efficient turntable in addition to a series of video and sliding panels propels the show’s cinematic fluidity, expertly heightened by John Rensel’s lighting design. Costumer Ayn Kaethchen Wood incorporates wardrobe from Denmark designers Anna Juul Holm and Lotte Blichfeldt, but her notable contemporary outfits are precisely true to character especially Andy’s casual attire and Jansen’s flashy pink jeans. Jay Brunner’s first-rate sound design, Heather Powell’s unique properties, and Gina Cerimele-Mechley’s vibrant fight choreography bolster Legendale’s fanciful aura. Music director Scot Woolley leads a remarkably solid and full-sounding seven-piece off-stage band.
Whether it’s the tale of a bachelor willing to give marriage a try or a group of outcasts demanding attention be paid, musicals about connection – to simply belong to someone or something or thriving to become somebody – will always have the power to resonate. “You’re alone. I’m part of a team,” Andy proclaims in a valiant moment of epiphany. “Opportunity is everywhere.” Like Legendale, Andy is still a work in progress, but it’s a pleasure watching him come to terms with the joys of being alive.
Legendale – A New Musical continues through Oct. 1 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $17.50-$50. There are discounts for select side-area seats available for $12 and $25 for all performances. For group sales, contact Betty Gould at (937) 461-8295 or e-mail [email protected]. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. In addition, there will be Young Professionals Board Game Night Saturday, Sept. 16 at 5 p.m., and a post-show talk-back following the Sunday, Sept. 17 performance. For more information about the Young Professionals Board Game Night, visit the Human Race’s Facebook page at facebook.com/humanracetheatre.