Fifteen actors. Forty-five speaking roles. More than two dozen behind-the-scenes staffers. A live band, live singing and live video projected on a giant spandex screen. The most ambitious show to hit Orlando in years opens July 10 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center. This isn’t a Broadway bus-and-truck tour, it’s original theater fueled by local talent and money with the potential to carry far beyond this city.
This is My Illustrious Wasteland.
It’s mid-21st century, and America is trashed. Hollywood is the capital, celebrities are saints, and “People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People” is a subject in high-school history. An anti-depressant–addicted population is permanently plugged into the Internet via their brain-mounted “Biological PCs,” becoming “gorgeous machines” incapable of personal interaction. Mogs, son of the late rock star Lucifer Itch, is a video-game–obsessed teen saddled with a sedated mother who pines for the time when “people used to watch television together.” Mogs meets cute with Sunny Day, pop tart and bride to the “President Reverend M.D.,” an autocrat with an affected accent. (“He’s a direct descendant of Madonna, they all talk like that.”) As the President sermonizes against universal health care and suppresses reports of a deadly “information disease,” Mogs and Sunny begin a clandestine courtship through “see-mail” and a virtual lovers lane. When the President discovers the affair, the lovers become pawns in his war against the “Realists,” pot-smoking rebels who reject cybernetic hardware in favor of unenhanced humanity.
And that’s all just in Act 1.
My Illustrious Wasteland is the brainchild of writer-composer-lyricist Tod Kimbro, and it’s the product of a nearly decade-long gestation. You may know Kimbro from his string of Fringe hits (In the Blue, F-Bombs and G-Strings, Loud, The Zombie Doorman), his 2000-2001 onstage serial sitcom Caffeine or his piano-playing at the CityWalk bar Pat O’Brien’s. Kimbro began developing his idea for a science-fiction rock & roll musical back in 1999, and composition began in earnest in 2003. The resulting album, Soundtrack to a Chemical Spill, was released in 2006; seven of the original 11 cuts are retained in revised form in the new score, accompanied by 10 more songs.
When asked to cite influences, Kimbro acknowledges his cinematic debts, with directors Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam providing particular inspiration. Musically, the songs stand in the tradition of Kimbro’s favorite genre: ’70s glam rock. The dramatic cocktail feels like Ziggy Stardust meets 12 Monkeys, with styling by Edward Scissorhands. (It reminds me a bit of Boy George’s underrated Taboo.)
To produce his elaborate vision, Kimbro enlisted big names in Orlando theater, starting with producer Beth Marshall of the Fringe. Director John DiDonna of Empty Spaces Theatre Co. came aboard, as did VarieTease choreographer Blue and assistant director Michael Marinaccio. Talent attracts talent, and a remarkable 75 actors appeared at the first audition.
It’s too early for a final verdict, but I can clearly see the potential for greatness. The story line may appear somewhat derivative of other dystopian tales, but Kimbro’s sense of “the ridiculous and the severe” gives it a uniquely silly satirical tone. He’s always been a powerhouse songsmith, and the vocally gifted cast has the pipes to do his melodies justice. DiDonna and Blue’s energetic movement makes the usually ample Margeson Theater feel undersized.
The cast features Chris McIntyre and Brittany Berkowitz, with Kimbro playing the President and Marshall as Mogs’ mom. The supporting actors, each tasked with multiple parts, include Elizabeth T. Murff and Doug Ba’aser as comic-relief celebrity interviewers; Corey Volence and Ryan Leyhue as Kimbro’s henchmen; Dorothy Massey as Marshall’s younger self; and VarieTease’s Lani Hoxie and Willy Marchante as featured dancers. The ensemble is rounded out by talented newcomers, plus a raft of local notables (including Michael Wanzie, Miss Sammy and David Lee) appear in video segments designed by Fault Line Productions.
With such a large cast and an even bigger crew, the most ambitious factor of the production is that they are getting paid – even for the rehearsal process. That, along with extensive tech elements, required a $30,000 budget – an extravagant sum by the standards of independent Orlando theater. All that cash came courtesy of a mix of corporate sponsors (Sci-Fi City), public funding (United Arts) and private donations (Marlah Kimbro, friends and family). Obviously, no one puts so much into a show without expectations that extend beyond an 11-day run. A video and live cast album will be created, and prospective investors from New York have been invited. It’s all with an eventual eye toward, as Marshall bluntly predicts, a bow on Broadway.
Of course, at the dress rehearsal I attended, DiDonna had his sights set considerably lower: “Make sure we turn the casters toward the front,” he told the stage manager as he scooted around in a prop wheelchair, inspecting the freshly built set. Actors rehearsed around the lighting designer as she wrestled with the overhead electrics, and discussion raged over how to change into the multitude of techno-goth getups created by costumer Babette Garber (in collaboration with the cast’s closets). In other words, the inevitable, ineffable creative chaos that accompanies the birth of any big show.
(Conflict of interest alert: Most of the above-mentioned people as well as most of the others involved in the show are friends and/or past collaborators of mine. But if their work sucked, I’d say so. Just ask them.)firstname.lastname@example.org