Jollyship The Whiz-Bang
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
May 30, 2008
The pirate vessel Jollyship The Whiz-Bang hits the high seas (and I mean really high—not just buzzed) leaving behind its moral compass but towing in its wake a boatful of laughs. This is pure rockin' good times theatre, performed in the perfectly fitting atmosphere of the half-cabaret style Ars Nova.
The pirates in this show are too busy partying to do much pirating. They set sail for Party Island (again) but their staggering, drunk captain has no idea where it is. Still, the promise of free drinks and half-priced whores drives them further out to sea. Eventually, the crew tries to mutiny but only end up giving the captain a pet crab because he is so depressed over the loss of his tender little cabin boy. Prodded by his self-righteous crab, the captain turns over a new leaf, finds God, and begins dressing like the Pope. Meanwhile, his crab inquisitor leads him further into the jungle of a remote island in order to spread the word to the natives. There, the captain finds his arch enemy and his great love (no, not the cabin boy).
I've seen many puppet shows that have live music. However, this show is unique (at least for me) in that, instead of having the band shoved into a small corner of the stage while the puppeteers do their work, the band is the puppeteers/actors. What's even more impressive is that they are as talented as musicians as they are puppeteers/actors. Not all of them work with the puppets but those that do truly breathe life into their little paper and cloth characters. The animation of these foot-high rod puppets is very well done and their vocal characterizations are funny, real, and many times comes across as improv. Puppet designer Paul Burn does some fine work on these, especially the toothy, green captain and the old swabby with the crooked lower lip.
Creators Nick Jones and Raja Azar have put together a show that is so much fun that you'll likely want to come back and see it again. Sure, the script is mostly sex jokes and drug references, but what would you expect from a bunch of pirates heading for Party Island. Jones fronts the band and plays the main character (the captain) and a few other characters. He is extremely charismatic and a very good actor/singer/guitar player. Jones is such a huge component of this performance. He ends up carrying a large portion of it. Azar plays the keys and accordion, and he plays a pirate with a pure heart (not a puppet). He is also the musical director.
I can't say enough good things about the music in this production. The show is a rock musical that never slips into the trappings of becoming a musical. It avoids ballads and duets and instead has every song performed fast, tight, and full of high-octane energy. I especially liked the storm song, the witch song and, of course, the opening tune "Party Island." The band—Steven Boyer, Keith Fredrickson, Daniel Kutcher, Julie Lake, Jesse Wallace, Azar and Jones—puts on a great show that, at times, feels more like a concert than a play.
Boyer plays the stodgy, religious crab and several other characters. He is an amazing puppeteer and his vocals are fantastic. The characters he plays are so distinct from one another that it is easy to forget that it is him playing all these guys. Lake is equally amazing with her character voices and puppet work. These two mostly work with the puppets and set and really only do back up vocals in the band. Donyale Werle's small and detailed set piece design is worth a mention.
I had a great time at this show. It looks and sounds great and makes for a perfect night out at the theatre. When show was over I realized that I had indeed made it to Party Island and I would be hard pressed to find something better to do.