Onstage right now at the Trinity River Arts Center you can see the world's worst comedian and the world's drunkest magician, and they're both part of the best new musical to hit Dallas in years.
Kitchen Dog Theater artistic company members Cameron Cobb, Michael Federico, and Max Hartman have concocted Pompeii!!, a show so silly, so catchy, and so heartfelt that it'll likely be spinning 'round your brain for days after.
The citizens of the ancient Roman city are due to be wiped out by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but they're too busy with their hedonistic lives to notice. A clever allegory on America's past, present, and future, the show is styled in the tradition of 1930s vaudeville, with sketches and songs stitching together the plot, and choreography by Jeremy Dumont jazzing up the presentation.
Hartman embodies the devilishly slick emcee and leads the onstage band from his drum set, which swells with other cast members when necessary (try to count the instruments that this cast plays, and you'll quickly run out of fingers and toes). Anchoring the musical group is Thiago X. Nascimento on piano, getting in a few laughs with his sweet and earnest delivery. Ian Ferguson rounds out the main trio as Hartman's guitar-playing brother/punching bag, but jumps in and out of the scenes to "cover" for a fictional actor who didn't show.
This allows him to become, among other things, the outrageously narcissistic Emperor Vespasian and an Irish man looking for an honest day's work. The former tops Ferguson's previous standard for excellently portraying a dum-dum ruler — Louis XVI in Federico and Hartman's much-lauded On The Eve — and the latter crushes hearts with a hauntingly beautiful ballad.
That's the thing about these songs: they're really good. Good enough to have already won one of the Dramatist Guild Foundation's 10 inaugural Writers Alliance Grants, as well as be the centerpiece for the National Endowment for the Arts grant that KDT received to continue its New Works Festival.
And the cast, under Cobb's direction, sells them with the confidence of a snake-oil huckster. Jeff Swearingen and Jo-Jo Steine offer romance and later contempt with their mismatched-from-the-start couple. Steph Garrett and Marti Etheridge, two of Dallas' best comediennes, stop the show as otherworldly switchboard operators tasked with telling the mortals "tough luck" as they try to pray to the gods for salvation.
Garrett also gets to show off her clowning skills with Dennis Raveneau, who grounds the hilarity as the show's sincere straight man. Often taking pratfalls for punchlines is Parker Gray, a comic actor who excels at giving us a glimpse of the pain behind the laughter.
In this riotous display of dramatic debauchery, it might be the end of the world as they know it, but we feel fine.
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Pompeii!! runs through May 6 at the Trinity River Arts Center.