Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Through February 26
Beating a video game is no simple feat, and neither is writing a musical — especially a new musical about video games. Unfortunately, while the characters in Claudio Quest, now playing at the Chance Theater in Anaheim, are able to save the day, the show itself can’t beat the final boss battle: being an unequivocally good piece of theater.
Claudio Quest is a loving send-up of games like Super Mario Brothers. Claudio (Beau Brians) is the default protagonist in the game “Claudio Quest,” and is adept at fighting every foe in play. His younger brother, Luis (Andrew Puente), is perpetually Player #2, a role he’s starting to resent —he would love a chance to take the lead in rescuing Princess Poinsettia (Kim Dalton) from the evil Bruiser (Miguel Cardenas). Meanwhile Poinsettia’s younger sister, Princess Fish (Monika Pena), is sick of being cooped up in the castle, and sneaks out to go on adventures with Claudio and Luis.
The premise is somewhat promising, but the execution stumbles on a few levels. While the songs, by Marshall Pailet and Drew Fornarola, are a lot of fun, the lyrics are often so clunky that they negate the notes’ effervescent effects. The book, also by Pailet and Fornarola, drags, especially in the back half of the first act. Few of the jokes land, and the show too often feels like it’s trying too hard to be funny.
Also disappointing is the ensemble; most of the performers fall flat in their singing and/or acting. The sound design (by Ryan Brodkin) doesn’t do them any favors — it’s often unbalanced, with the pre-recorded instrumentation drowning out the lyrics, making it difficult to track what’s going on.
However, there is one bright spot: Pena’s Princess Fish. Though her character (like every other one in the show) feels more like a trope than a fully-realized individual, Pena brings Fish to buoyant life, hopping around the stage while singing with a voice that’s clear as a bell. Two of the show’s high points are her numbers “Super Fish,” an upbeat anthem where she debuts her adventuring alter ego, and “More Than One Way,” an empowering duet sung by Princesses Poinsettia and Fish about being yourself — part of which Pena sings while hanging upside down.
Pailet, who also directs, stages the show capably, playing with fun physical comedy moments on Fred Kinney’s spare but effective set. Pailet runs the cast ragged around the stage and, to their credit, the actors rise to the physical challenge.
But the fact remains that overall, Claudio Quest feels more derivative than innovative. There have been plenty of musicals about unconventional princesses, from Once Upon a Mattress to Shrek. Similarly, while the songs can be charming, they all sound like they are cut from the same contemporary cloth that many of Pailet and Fornarela’s peers are using. Kudos to the folks at Chance for, well, taking a chance on Claudio Quest, but between the ensemble and the book, the show doesn’t feel ready for paying audiences yet.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, Fri., 8 p.m; Sat. 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; through Feb.26; (888) 455-4212 or chancetheater.com. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.