September 26, 2013
“What if death was a second chance?” is the question posed by Hell: The Musical, which premiered last week at the Tolles Pavillion. The production flies above any expectations set by its cutesy title with its surprising emotional heft. There are no flashy numbers to be found—just the thrill of watching fully-realized characters struggle for a chance at redemption. With a story so strong, the “musical” aspect is not even necessary (though it supplies a nice garnish to the proceedings).
The action opens with the sound of a bus crash that takes the life of our protagonist, Rick. He arrives in Hell via the office of the devil himself who, in this iteration, is a business drone. Rick is told that through a mix-up he has been assigned to the underworld and must live among the damned for a week before his ticket to heaven arrives. He becomes acquainted with the locals at a nearby hotel and soon learns that some of Hell’s residents have been mysteriously “burning up” and turning to ashes.
The opening of Hell is marked by quirky world-building details. For example, the devil hands Rick a pamphlet when he first comes to Hell explaining his new surroundings. The “Hell as a business environment” metaphor works well in establishing the musical’s humor —subtle rather than bawdy, with an undercurrent of darkness. There are also clever flourishes such as the mantra that the damned live by —“YODO” a.k.a. “you only die once.”
As the tragic backstories of the hell-bound characters come to light at the end of the first act, the play takes on an unanticipated resonance. It is a tribute to the writing team of Jim Anesta ’14 and Ward Pettibone that some truly weighty themes are broached by this musical. Torian Pope ’14 is particularly adept at conveying raw emotion, as his character Austin pines for his lover who committed suicide back on Earth. However, every member of the small cast gets their opportunity to project pathos, as the story calls on most of the characters to erupt at one point. Nate Goebel ’15 plays the Prince of Darkness with the dry sense of humor and world-weariness of a man who has held the same job for two millennia. Kevin Herrera ’16 (Todd) and Peter Bresnan ’15 (Father Lane), imbue their characters with humanity despite their sometimes-tenuous morality. Will Schoder ’14 (Pete) to play many facets of his ever-evolving character. Shea Crockett ’15 (Rick) plays a foil to the rest of the cast, but the final scenes give him ample room to emote.
The musical numbers take a secondary position to the story, and drop out for some of the more intense segments. The songs aren’t always distinctive and occasionally dive into cliché, but Hell always emerges from them with a stronger sense of purpose. As for the singing—Kiki Sosa ’15 (Maria) equips herself the best. Her songs provide the most insight into her character, and some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the show.
There is an admirable DIY aesthetic to the unadorned set and lighting effects. This is particularly seen in the inventive transitions, as two scenes occasionally play out on the stage at the same time. Even the small band providing the music on the side of the stage slipped in and out when it was not their cue.
There are some twists in the final act, some of a Biblical nature. Perhaps what one would least expect of a musical called Hell is a happy ending, but this production manages one that is not only suitable, but sweet.
Hell: The Musical puts larger-scale musicals to shame with its sincerity. For a supposed “fantasy,” it is sometimes startlingly grounded. Anesta and Pettibone have crafted a heartfelt meditation on the power of the human spirit that, even in death, still lives on. One can only hope for a sequel—perhaps Heaven: the Musical?