Inferno: The New Rock Musical
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
August 14, 2009
Don't be misled by the title Inferno: The New Rock Musical. This adaptation of Dante's epic poem might be in the FringeNYC Festival, where rock-and-mock musicals like Urinetown and Debbie Does Dallas have found success, but Inferno isn't a parody at all. Instead Inferno attempts to seriously and sincerely depict Dante's legendary journey guided by Virgil through the underworld—all the way from the banks of the river Styx to the frozen city in the ninth circle of Hell. While it need not be tongue-in-cheek, a successful adaptation of this sprawling, morally complex epic requires a Hell of a lot of focus. Sadly, Inferno doesn't really know what story it wants to tell.
Composer/director Rick Merino has written a song for each memorable encounter along Dante and Virgil's journey: when they approach the famous "Abandon All Hope" sign, when they meet a minotaur at a river of blood, when they see hypocritical, immoral friars. Whereas in the text the heinous punishments reflect the crimes of the sinner and offer satirical commentary on religion and politics, few of the demons that Dante and Virgil encounter here bear much distinction or reflect specific moral lessons. Perhaps most importantly, the purpose of this excursion is never quite explained. Or if it is, I missed it, the story muddied by the oft-unintelligible lyrics, the lack of a book, and the absence of staged scenes. True, the enthusiastic actors don grotesque Halloween masks, poke each other with pitchforks, and meander threateningly towards the audience. Of particular note is Buzz Cartier, who charmingly embraces his devilish parts with the uncompromising swagger of a band's lead singer. But the wrestling and snarling of the cast is not theatrical staging as much as it is an attempt to create Hell-like ambience.
Indeed, with the focus of the evening wholly on the multi-piece band on a dimly lit stage, Inferno more resembles a rock concert with a theme than an actual musical with a story and characters. As a result, it's unclear what Merino is trying to accomplish, except to vaguely suggest that people still commit the same sins today. It's hard not to think that the concept of this piece was simply, "Wouldn't it be cool if we put Inferno to rock music?"
While Merino may not have been able to focus Dante's story into a theatre piece, there's evidence that he is a composer of considerable talent. Merino demonstrates his versatility with Randy Newman-style ditties, Marilyn Manson-like riffs, and Styx-esque synthy solos. The story as a whole may have benefited from these stylistic flights-of-fancy to distinguish the sinners from one another. In addition to playing Dante and the guitar, Merino leads the impressive Band of Demons, with Jack Justice wailing on lead guitar, Matt Dow banging away vigorously on the drums, Ron Danks turning in some exceptional piano solos, and Karen Lauber providing lovely vocal harmonies and a steady bass beat.
There's no lack of musical talent on display here, and perhaps Inferno would be an intriguing concept album. But without a focused purpose and a clearly told story, Inferno isn't as much a musical as it is a 75-minute rock concert with Halloween masks.