BWW Review: BUBBLE BOY Is Low-Budget, Scrappy Fun at Arcade Comedy Theater
There was a time, around the middle of the 2000s to the earliest years of the 2010s, when a sort of "ironic musical with heart" came into vogue. They were low-budget affairs with small casts doubling in multiple roles. The sense of humor was sketch comedy inspired and fourth-wall breaking, with an almost Brechtian sense of "yes, we know we're in a musical and that's ridiculous, just roll with it." A few of these musicals, most notably Reefer Madness, made it to Broadway, but most were Off-Broadway fodder until the rise of YouTube and streaming media made groups like Team StarKid pioneers of the genre, with A Very Potter Musical inspiring dozens of imitators. After a few years, this genre started to fizzle out, with seriocomic ensemble pieces, usually through-composed if not through-sung, as the new model du jour (see: Hamilton, Great Comet, Come from Away, Fun Home). Now Bubble Boy, the first musical produced by Pittsburgh's Arcade Comedy Theater, feels like a title from that era- but you'd be surprised to learn it's only a few years old.
Based on the not-well-remembered (save for the "five hundred dollah" meme) Jake Gyllenhaal movie of the same name, and with book, music and lyrics by the film's writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, Bubble Boy tells the story of good-hearted but sheltered Jimmy (Nathaniel Yost), whose lack of functioning immune system has led his domineering mother (Missy Moreno) and quiet, henpecked father (Brad Stephenson) to save his life by keeping him in a sterile plastic chamber for his entire life. But much to Mrs. Livingston's dismay, Jimmy falls for the self-described "skank next door" Chloe (Alex Manalo), and she finds herself responding to Jimmy's kindness and pure heart. Unfortunately, there's not much of a relationship you can have with a boy in a plastic bubble, so when Chloe packs it in and decides to marry her scummy boyfriend Mark (Noah Welter) at Niagara Falls, Jimmy builds himself a "travel bubble," breaks out of his house and goes on a whirlwind road trip to stop the wedding and express his true feelings.
The cast, split about evenly between vocationally theatre people and vocationally comedy-performance people, is always game to the show's quick-change demands, shifting from doctors to high schoolers to cultists with a slight change of costume and demeanor. It's more MAD TV than SNL, but the scrappiness is part of the appeal for a show like this. Of the theatre people, the central couple make the biggest impression. Alex Manalo finds an appealing sweetness in Chloe, and manages to make this ring true despite her character being delightfully trashy; she's introduced flipping the audience off, and has probably the funniest "drunk seduction" scene since "Let Me Come Home" in The Wedding Singer. Nathaniel Yost, as the titular bubble boy himself, has fantastic comic timing and presence- those of you who saw him last as Pseudolus in Forum at Apple Hill would hardly expect the high man-child vocal timbre Jimmy speaks in, after hearing the booming, Nathan Fillion baritone Yost affected as Pseudolus. (A side note: Nathaniel Yost, in voice, face and presence, is a dead ringer for Broadway star Alex Brightman, and next time Beetlejuice is casting for the tour I'd bet money on his getting a callback.) Bridging the gap between the two thwarted lovers are Missy Moreno, whose hilariously high-strung Mrs. Livingston gets huge laughs on every entrance, and Noah Welter, who commits completely to the wannabe rock star Mark.
While most people in the cast play one featured role and then ensemble bits with one or two lines, an additional shout-out for comic excellence in the cast goes to Jerome Fitzgerald in two supporting roles. As the redneck sheriff who pops up repeatedly, his quasi-Walking Dead mannerisms are broad but effective. More importantly, as Shawn, Mark's bandmate who may or may not also be his lover, Fitzgerald juggles dumb jock, stoner, frat bro and gay panic stereotypes without ever becoming too broad or too offensive in a tricky role to pull off today. (An interesting note: I mentioned in my earlier review of Rock of Ages that the heavy amount of winking gay panic innuendo between two of the supporting characters was revised slightly in that production to make the two of them openly bisexual horndogs. The same thing has happened in this production: while Mark and Shawn were probably written as "so straight they're kinda gay," DiGiulio's staging makes it abundantly clear that these two idiots are very much a thing, and what Chloe has signed up for is not so much a third wheel situation as one of those newfangled "throuples." At twenty-nine, I just said newfangled, and I am apparently old now.) Last but not least, local improv mainstay Brad Stephenson does great and mostly mute work as the Teller-like Mr. Livingston, forever afraid to speak or prevented to speak by his wife.
"This is the best musical I have ever seen," said one woman as I left the theatre. "I think this is the only good musical ever written," another man said. "I was going to shit myself," another spectator said, though I heard this in passing and don't know if it was from amusement or if it even took place during the show or not. But the important thing is that, even though the book, music and lyrics are far from perfect as works of musical theatre, the good heart, wacky 2000s-style sense of humor, and do it yourself vibe of the production are making an impact on people. I remember when I first saw Darren Criss in A Very Potter Musical- he made it look easy, and he made the bar seem appealingly low. You don't need to be a structural master like Sondheim or Jeanine Tesori to write a musical: you need a good ear for a song, some characters, and usually a handful of good jokes. The rest will come in time, but there's nothing wrong with building with the basics until then. I just hope that, like me, someone at Bubble Boy who never thought they could write a musical goes homes, sits at their computer or their instrument of choice, and tries.