'Only Human': Theater Review

Courtesy of Ahron R. Foster
Mike Squillante (left) and Gary Busey in 'Only Human'
Gary Busey as God. Do you need to know anything more?
10/28/2019

Gary Busey plays God in this new pop-rock musical also featuring Jesus, Lucifer and Mary Magdalene as principal characters.

There's a moment in the new musical Only Human in which God, played by Gary Busey (yes, that's right, more on that in a moment), sees his reflection in a mirror for the first time. The look of pure delight on God's face is indelible, and he does a sort of shimmy by way of celebrating himself. It's the most believable moment in the show.

Anyway, back to Busey. To be accurate, his character is referred to only as "The Boss." Although to be sure you understand who he really is, the program helpfully clues us in that he's God, and that the characters named Jay (Evan Maltby), Lou (Mike Squillante) and Maggie (Kim Steele) are supposed to be Jesus, Lucifer and Mary Magdalene, respectively. Apparently, the show's creators felt we otherwise wouldn't quite get it.

The first act of the world-premiere musical is set in "Heaven's front office, before time was time," which probably explains why time seems to stand still while you watch it. Considering the workplace's heavenly status, it's pretty bare-bones, containing little more than some office chairs, a wheeled metal staircase and some large cubes. In addition, God — sorry, "The Boss" — has a small private office upstairs, where he sits behind a desk at a boxy, vintage computer. Because after all, Steve Jobs, or any human being for that matter, hasn't been born yet — except, for some reason, Mary Magdalene.

The story begins with Lou proudly unveiling his idea for the creation of the human race, followed by Maggie arguing that it needs more women and Jay making a case that the essential ingredient for people should be niceness. As anyone who's ever worked in an office can guess, tensions arise, until The Boss eventually fires Lou. In any case, mankind does get rolling, as signified by a fig leaf-wearing Adam and Eve (ensemble members Ben Bogen and Lili Thomas) who engage in a pas de deux.

To say that the book by Jess Carson (based on a story by Jesse Murphy and Squillante) is far from divine is an understatement. At one point, God announces he's short on time, saying, "I've got walking on water lessons at 3:00." Later, when Jay staggers into the office wearing only a loincloth and looking decidedly worse for wear, a concerned Maggie asks him, "What happened?" His reply, "They nailed me to a cross," is apparently intended to be a laugh line.

The nonsensical, unfunny proceedings also include a generic, forgettable pop/rock score composed by Squillante, who, as his bio informs us, is the singer/guitarist of a band named Running Lights. In true would-be rock star fashion, Squillante gives the lion's share of the musical numbers to himself, and even indulges in an electric guitar solo. He also certainly looks the part of both rock band frontman and Lucifer, sporting scruffy facial hair, a black leather jacket and appropriately ripped tight pants.  

Of course, it's Busey whom audiences are coming to see — whether for nostalgia over films such as The Buddy Holly Story (for which he received a best actor Oscar nomination), Lethal Weapon, Under Siege and the cult classic Point Break — or a perverse desire to gawk at the notably eccentric star of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing With the Stars.

The actor's mental issues, stemming from his devastating 1988 motorcycle accident and his substance abuse problem, are well documented. He's certainly a sight to see onstage, looking quite healthy and spry at age 75. Wearing a sharp, light blue suit, he doesn't so much give a performance as project an above-it-all attitude, which admittedly feels appropriate for his role. You can see him visibly struggling at times, even as he gives the impression that he's typecast as God.

Occasionally, the actor throws in one of his trademark "Buseyisms," such as, "Fun…FUN stands for Finally Understanding Nothing." Some of his lines are prerecorded, and despite his singing experience (he impressively did his own vocals playing Holly), he barely manages to get through his sole showcase number, the title song performed as a duet with Maltby. Much of his performance consists of intently looking through the contents of file folders, of which there seems to be an inordinately large amount in heaven.  

Still, Busey is the most compelling element in a show that otherwise probably wouldn't (or at least, shouldn't) have seen the light of day in an off-Broadway production. There's also no faulting Steele, whose powerhouse vocals make the songs sound better than they are.

In the program title page, Only Human is labeled "A Blessed New Musical." That may or may not be true, but there's no doubt that audiences are going to feel cursed.

Venue: Theatre at St. Clement's, New York
Cast: Gary Busey, Evan Maltby, Mike Squillante, Kim Steele, Ben Bogen, Lili Thomas, Charles West
Book: Jess Carson
Music and lyrics: Mike Squillante
Story: Jesse Murphy, Mike Squillante
Director: NJ Agwuna
Choreographer: Josue Jasmin
Set designer: Andrew Moerdyk
Costume designer: Avery Reed
Lighting designer: Eric Norbury
Sound designer: Ben Scheff
Presented by Jesse Murphy, James Sears Bryant, Joseph Wolnick, Gylden Entertainment, James Raby, Dick & Mary Meisterling, Steven Becker, Whitney Wood, Amy Hassinger, Jela Okpara