America is undergoing ecological and societal collapse, and the elite are retreating into media-saturated bubbles, while the chemically pacified populace is spoon-fed falsehoods from a fear-mongering leader via their omnipresent digital devices. When Tod Kimbro premiered the first incarnation of his sci-fi musical Wasteland way back in 2008, its premise was considered far-fetched, if not downright fanciful. "It was considered a work of pure absurdism about eight years ago, to have a celebrity president and everyone addicted to technology," Kimbro told the audience at the Venue after last Thursday's preview of his life's work's latest edition. "Now it's just a reflection of the modern age."
That's terrible news for our nation, but hopefully it's happy timing for a project that Kimbro – a fixture of Orlando's arts scene since the late 1990s – has been developing for nearly 20 years. It started life as a concept album created by Kimbro, based on an idea by Jason Bowles, that was released in 2006 as Soundtrack to a Chemical Spill. In 2008, producer Beth Marshall and director John DiDonna mounted a full-scale staging of the show – by then known as My Illustrious Wasteland – at Orlando Shakes. With a cast of 15 actors and a budget of $30,000, I called that early version "the most ambitious show to hit Orlando in years" and wrote that "it's too early for a final verdict, but I can clearly see the potential for greatness."
The following year My Illustrious Wasteland was accepted into the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival, and then was revised and remounted locally in 2011. Kimbro never stopped tinkering with it, starting and abandoning several rewrites over the last decade. "I loved it; it was a great production," says Kimbro of the initial version. "I just wanted to slim some things down, cut a lot of the fat out of the story and focus on the characters."
Now retitled simply Wasteland, the show's central storyline remains essentially intact, following cyberpunk slacker Mogs (Daniel Martinez) and his android pop-star paramour Sunny Day (Chase Shellee) as they attempt to overthrow the fashionably fascist President Royal Marcus Dickory (Kimbro). But this latest take on the tale – which Kimbro jokingly refers to as "Wasteland 6.0 or whatever" – strips away much of the technobabble exposition while intensifying the emotional stakes. "It's difficult when you're doing a concept-driven piece to make it character-driven too," explains Kimbro, "so that was the aim of this go-around."
Another objective of Kimbro's most recent rewrite was "to excise out of the show some songs that people who were familiar with it probably do miss, but they just weren't driving the story," he says. "So I wrote some new ones that are hopefully doing the job." Some lost tunes, like "Trucker Hat Blues" and "Dragonbelly," were key to the original concept album, but their new replacements are Broadway-worthy, especially "Sail On," a rousing ballad that's blessed by Eduardo Rivera's soaring vocals and Milka Ramos' propulsive percussion.
Producer-director Michael Marinaccio, who served as assistant director on the 2008 version, told patrons during a post-performance talkback that American culture has finally caught up with the show. "I think it was not the right time for it, and it feels like now it's a little more relevant. It's almost too real." This time around, rather than an expensive full production, Marinaccio mounted it concert-style with minimal staging. "We didn't have a lot of time or resources to put into this, and we didn't feel like we wanted to get to full production right away," he explains. "We wanted to do something like this where we could present the piece and get feedback and workshop a little before we go to the next level."
"We were a little bit concerned because we were presenting it as a concert only," Kimbro admits. In order to "flesh out" the visuals, Tymisha Harris came aboard to provide costumes and choreography (as well as cameo as the Acid Queen-esque Mother Massey), and Dana Mott designed animated scene-setting backdrops. [Full disclosure: I was credited as "multimedia consultant," which means I loaned the company my spare video projector and introduced them to Mott.] Marinaccio calls Mott "my hero of this show," saying "to do it as a scaled-down version but still get the story across, I really felt like the projections were an essential element."
Wasteland's three-night run was filmed with an eye toward interesting investors in a fuller future production, but it also served as a fundraiser to help relocate the Venue, which is being demolished this fall. "The Venue changed the landscape of this community," says Marinaccio. "It's been a springboard for innovation and new creative works. Unfortunately, it's going away on Sept. 12, so this is wonderfully bittersweet for us to be here."