Arts musical review

After you die...

MTG presents a musical tale about life, death, love, and self-discovery

9038 jasper in deadland   nathan liang
Jasper (Michael Mandanas ’22) is taunted by his memories of Agnes as he falls into Deadland.

Jasper in Deadland
MIT Musical Theater Guild
Directed by Geoff Hegg ’17
Kresge Little Theater
April 26–27 and May 2–3 at 8 p.m., April 28 and May 4 at 2 p.m.

Ya-ta ta-ta, da-da daa da! Jasper, Goodbye! Set to a techno-rock soundtrack that makes you want to put on a skeleton costume and dance, MTG’s rendition of Jasper in Deadland hits all the right spots – after watching it you may want to cry, or even die (of laughter). The story tells about teenage Jasper (Michael Mandanas ’22), trapped within a broken life empty of hope, save for his best friend Agnes. But in a night of misunderstanding and confusion between the two, Agnes runs away and goes missing. In search of her, Jasper soon finds himself in Deadland: a place inhabited by gods and demons of every ancient mythology, a sinister business magnate, and the ghosts of receding memories. Armed with only his wit and the help of Gretchen (Phoebe Piercy ’20), an Underworld tour guide, Jasper fights to win back the best friend he loves, facing his inner demons and discovering how to live and to love without fear along the way.

What sets Jasper in Deadland apart as a musical is its cast of dark yet outrageously comical characters, which MTG embodied masterfully. Among them include Mr. Lethe (David Favela ’18), the sinister tycoon who dominates the Underworld’s water market with his signature forgetting-water from the river Lethe; Hel (PJ Hernandez ’20) and Loki (Gustavo Santiago-Reyes ’22), egocentric Norse gods and servants of Lethe; Ammut (Dheekshu Kumar ’20), the Egyptian demoness and feisty combination of crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus who reads tabloid magazines when she’s not threatening to eat the hearts of Elysium-seekers; and Beatrix (Judy Jiajing Wang ’19), an aviator version of Dante’s muse, Beatrice. Little Lu (Seth Ayala ’19), a cowboyish rendition of the fallen angel Lucifer, sports a southern accent, plaid shirt, and a scruffy beard. “This is the third time I've played the devil in a show, and I always have a lot of fun playing evil characters even if I don't relate,” said Seth. “I'm easily distracted like he is, and I had a lot of fun doing the exaggerated accent because I'm from Texas and thought it was hilarious.”

And of course, there are our mains. “Jasper is a really interesting character,” said Michael about his character. “He’s got this inner strength and determination that only really comes out when he’s hit rock bottom.” Phoebe said about Gretchen, “I love my character, she has this great tough attitude, big heart personality that I love playing with. There is a great range between sassy sharp and highly emotional that makes her a really interesting and very real character.”

The props and costumes add a razzle-dazzle to the visual scene that matches the spunk of the characters. As Jasper falls into the lake that serves as the portal into Deadland, giant banners of cloth flow like swirling torrents across the stage as an eerie blue light soaks the scene in a vortex of confusion. The three-headed Cerberus, created by puppet designers E. Rosser ’12 and Jordan Tappa ’21, eyes down the audience with glowing eyes in shades of fire. Ammut sports a crown that evokes the reptilian nature of her face, made from “six plastic crocodiles and a hairband, using a drill, needle and thread, and a pile of gold paint,“ as costume designer Elizabeth Chang-Davidson ’19 explained.

The three blind justices who participated in the weighing of Jasper’s heart wear lavish golden dresses and blindfolds that match the spunky beat of the song they dance to, “Hungry for Your Heart.” The glowing object representing Jasper’s heart itself enthralled me — a small rainbow of colors that beat with a life of its own. Elizabeth designed Pluto's shirt as “an Easter egg of sorts” and even envisioned a backstory for it. Supposedly, Elizabeth said, “Pluto had some worker make this shirt to commemorate his and Persephone's relationship with flowers on one side and a skull on the other, because he's just that kind of dork.”

Each of the components of musical theater — singing, dancing, and acting — may be manageable alone, but putting the three components together is no easy feat. “I’ve been doing musical theatre ever since I was a kid, and I’ve always believed that the sum of all the parts was much, much harder than any of the individual parts themselves,” said Michael. Phoebe added, “A song might sound great when you plant your feet and focus on breath control. It might feel natural to act when you can put all your mental energy into your character and their thoughts. The choreo is much easier to get right when you can really focus on getting it sharp. But you can't consciously think about all three at once. The hardest part about musical theatre is therefore just how much you need to put into muscle memory, in order to perform, say, a single song.” But despite the challenges, the cast and crew find so much joy in the production process. “Once I figured out how to handle the time commitment, it has been my lifeline amongst the stresses of MIT,” said Phoebe.

As an Off-Broadway show that escaped most public attention when it first opened, the musical is, in my opinion, very sadly underrated. The soundtrack squeezed out all the teenage fervor I had in me, especially thanks to Michael and Phoebe’s poignant, youthful voices. The song "Goodbye Jasper" opens the show with a wistful melody of strings and bright piano as Jasper’s life flashes across the stage, but soon escalates into a “ya-ta ta-ta” riff of electric guitar and electronic rhythms as Jasper falls into Deadland. The haunting voices of the ensemble embodying Jasper’s memories sing, “aaaaah...aaaah.. AAAAAH! Goodbyeeee!” When the living dead begin dancing to the hasty rhythm of “The Killing,” the energy of the song made me bounce in my seat as well. The song “Stroke by Stroke” marks a turning point in the story, evoked by hopeful strings and the thumping, stroke-by-stroke beat of the bass drum. And the lyrics bring out all the feels — “We'll never know we're alive, Till we jump, till we dive!” Michael shared about the song: “It really plays into the swimming motifs of the show. The message of the song is really powerful — you can do anything as long as you take it a bit at a time.”

And sure enough, a bit at a time, the message of the musical hits home. To Jasper, Agnes is the most perfect girl in the world — unreachable. Because of the example set by his cheating mother and drug-addict father, Jasper is afraid of loving someone like Agnes, afraid he will never be good enough for her. “It’s difficult sometimes to recognize that you don’t have to be the best to be worthy of love,” Michael shared. Stroke by stroke, Jasper learns to love and to be loved.

All in all, this is an enthralling performance by MTG. Showings continue today through Saturday — don’t miss your chance to die from laughter and heartache.