The effort to turn anything and everything into a musical continues with Delaware Theatre Company's (DTC) Something Wicked This Way Comes, an expensive-looking, made-for-Broadway adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1962 fantasy novel by Neil Bartram (music and lyrics) and Brian Hill (book), creators of The Story of My Life (DTC, 2013).
That's not to say that musicals adapted from other mediums are necessarily bad. Nor that DTC artistic director Bud Martin's push to develop new works with commercial aspirations for Broadway and Off-Broadway is a mistake, though he hasn't produced a hit yet. But Something Wicked resembles other DTC premieres like the musicals Diner (based on the movie) and Because of Winn-Dixie (based on the book): expensive, inconclusive tryouts foisted on a regional theater audience. It feels a bit self-serving.
"This carnival ain't right somehow"
Bartram and Hill's adaptation tries to capture the human element of a fantastical story. Will (John Francis Babbo) and Jim (Sawyer Nunes) are 13-year-olds in fictional 1938 Greentown, Illinois, their bleak lives changed by the arrival of Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, a traveling carnival that captivates the entire town. Typical attractions like a hall of mirrors and a carousel are used with sinister intent by Mr. Dark (Rob Riddle) and company, and the boys and Will's widower father Charles (Stephen Bogardus) must defeat their evil powers.
Fine local actors in Something Wicked include Steve Pacek as the Lightning Rod Salesman, who narrates and assists the good guys; Karen Peakes as Jim's tragic alcoholic mother; Melissa Joy Hart as Charles's busybody library coworker; and Jake Blouch and Christopher Sapienza as town leaders. They're part of a busy ensemble who frames the show as the carnival's creepy Autumn People in a Sweeney Todd-like opening and closing.
The future of theater?
Something Wicked uses computer-animated projections to augment Scott Davis's scenic design. Sometimes designers Shawn Sagady and Freckled Sky provide pleasant backdrops of the October night sky. Most of their work creates the carnival's dark wonders: performers interacting with computer-generated images just like in the movies — only it's all live. These admittedly impressive special effects often overpower the human performers racing to stay in step with them, with a filmic sheen that feels false alongside live actors. Meghan Murphy's performance as the Dust Witch, for example, is swallowed whole by the projections and Garth Helm's sound design. That director Rachel Rockwell apparently equates drama with volume doesn't help; much of Act Two is deafening. As I wondered when my ears would start bleeding, I found myself far away from the story.
A regional premiere in a relatively small theater might have provided a chance to develop this new musical through actors’ and designers’ interpretive skills, rather than computers. Bradbury's story, which pits small-town smarts and a library's prosaic magic against the carnival's dark temptations, could be a lovely musical. Instead, Something Wicked This Way Comes feels pre-packaged for the Broadway tourist crowds, who will ooh and ahh at the bright loud stuff on stage that seems just like a movie.