Cult musicals, like cult movies, are best enjoyed when they’re fresh discoveries. That lesson was ignored by the creators of the musical adaptation of Billy Morrissette’s 2001 dark comedy Scotland, Pa., itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Despite very mixed reviews, the film, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and starred James LeGros, Maura Tierney and Christopher Walken, went on to achieve a minor following.
Now, Scotland, PA has arrived as an off-Broadway musical that desperately tries to emulate the status of its inspiration. Unfortunately, for every comparably styled success like Little Shop of Horrors, there are many more failures, including the musical adaptations of Eating Raoul, Harold and Maude and, of course, Carrie. This show, featuring a book by Michael Mitnick (Sex Lives of Our Parents) and score by Adam Gwon (Ordinary Days) is hardly a disaster of such proportions, but it is never more than forgettable.
The Bard’s “Scottish Play” is here reimagined in 1975 in the titular small Pennsylvania town, where Mac (Ryan McCartan, Heathers: The Musical) and Pat (Taylor Iman Jones, Groundhog Day) toil for little pay at a rundown burger joint owned by their nasty boss Duncan (Jeb Brown, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical). Complaining that they’re “30 and broke,” Pat convinces her husband to rob their employer, a plan that goes disastrously wrong when Duncan fights back and winds up dead, his face burnt to a crisp in the restaurant’s new deluxe fryer. Later on, Mac reluctantly dispatches their doltish colleague Banko (a very funny Jay Armstrong Johnson, On the Town) when he accidentally threatens to expose their alibi.
Fueling Mac’s ambition to open his own burger joint — featuring such innovative ideas as a drive-thru window, chicken nuggets and bacon on the burgers (“Cause, why not?”) — are not three witches but three stoners (Kaleb Wells, Wonu Ogunfowora and the invaluable Alysha Umphress) who tell him, “You deserve a break today!” Duncan’s murder is investigated by a feisty vegetarian detective, Peg McDuff (Megan Lawrence, Holiday Inn), a gender-reversed variation on the character memorably played by Walken in the film.
The show’s parodying of Macbeth, complete with scenes featuring Banko’s ghost and Pat succumbing to guilt-induced madness, quickly loses comic steam. Such riffs on the original play as when someone asks “What witchcraft is this?” after eating French fries or Mac announcing, “Take it from me, something wicked is coming your way” aren’t particularly funny, and the heavy-handed satirizing of McDonald’s (Mac’s redesigned restaurant, “McBeth’s,” is decked out in bright red and yellow and features a giant golden “M” as its logo) proves equally unamusing.
We never come to care a whit about any of the characters, a fatal flaw even in a broad comedy such as this (contrast that to how much sympathy we feel for Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop, for example). And the story feels hopelessly padded, filled with unnecessary subplots such as the revelation of one of its characters being secretly gay.
Gwon’s generic-feeling pop score has a few bright spots, including the jaunty “Peg McDuff is On the Case” and the slyly funny “Why I Love Football,” but it mostly proves unmemorable. Director Lonny Price tries to infuse the farcical, bloody proceedings with antic comic energy, but his staging, including one scene in which the performers wave long, billowing white sheets to indicate paradise, feels forced more often than not.
With McCartan and Jones failing to make much of an impression as the leads, it’s up to the supporting players to take up the comic slack. They’re more than up to the task; besides the aforementioned Armstrong and Umphress, who are clearly not afraid to go for broke with their enjoyably over-the-top performances, Lawrence is a hoot as the supremely confident detective who sings, “When it comes to chasing criminals, Columbo’s got nothin’ on me / Except that goddamn gorgeous ass.”
Anna Louizos’ sets, Tracy Christensen’s costumes and J. Jared Janas’ hair, wig and make-up designs make valuable comic contributions. In addition, audience members would be well advised to check out the lobby during intermission, since the visual cleverness extends beyond the stage.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Jeb Brown, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Taylor Iman Jones, Lacretta, Megan Lawrence, Ryan McCartan, Will Meyers, Wanu Ogunfowora, David Rossmer, Alysha Umphress, Kaleb Wells
Book: Michael Mitnick
Music and lyrics: Adam Gwon
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company