Part of me wants to describe Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist as 90 minutes of inconsequential light-hearted fun. This NYMF show has a book by Omri Schein that spins a familiar tale of high school outsiders overcoming the bullies that harass them. Under John Znidarsic’s brisk direction, the cast, with some fresh-looking talents, brings to acceptable life Schein’s array of cartoon-like characters. The traditional-sounding musical comedy score, with lyrics by Schein and music by James Olmstead, pleasantly echoes a grab bag of styles, stretching from Bye Bye Birdie and Grease to The Book of Mormon. The proceedings also exhibit a likeable infatuation with the subject of magic, and the stage business is studded with some nifty, if low-level, illusions.
The Gary Goldfarb of the title is a terribly overweight, bespectacled seventeen-year-old with a diffident manner but a burning desire to become a magician. As played by Jared Loftin with lots of padding, he’s both funny and touching.
Gary sees the upcoming school talent show as a chance to demonstrate his skill. But one of his tormenters, Kenny Krumholz (James David Larson), has already signed up to do his magic act, and the rules allow only one such act on the bill. Adding to Gary’s unhappiness is the fact that the girl he longs for, the school vamp and heartthrob, Cheryl Samatasinghar-Stein (a fetching Shobo Narayanan), will be Kenny’s assistant. But Gary does have an admirer in the person of Penelope Spry (an appealing Mary-Anne Piccolo), a wheelchair-bound girl who stutters and also wear glasses. She also loves Gary with every fiber of her being and she, along with an assist from ghosts of magicians from the past, is eventually responsible for Gary’s victory in the talent show. And in a final clinch, Gary reciprocates her affection.
It all seems harmless enough, but is it?
The show seems totally devoid of any sensitivity whatever, and the plethora of jokes and references about being fat (on Gary’s part) and crippled (on Penelope’s part) aren’t funny enough to keep things from quickly becoming oppressive. “Fat kids/Get diabetes/Fat kids/Wear shirts to swim,” sings the gruff high school coach (Todd Thurston) at the start of a jaunty tune in which Gary is variously described as being “a schlep” and “schlubby” and a “useless blob.” The lunchroom lady, Ms. Salmonelli (Mary-Anne Piccolo, who also plays Gary’s mother), lures Gary with mounds of tater tots and other fatty concoctions. Kenny puts down Penelope with such names as “Helen Keller” and “Miss Wheels.” Then there are the incessant references to Jewishness and things Jewish. There may be more than in Fiddler on the Roof. Granted Gary is Jewish and so are many of the magicians he idolizes, but the ploy eventually become gratituitous, as if writer Schein believed every mention of something Jewish -- from the word tuchis (Yiddish for ass) to Bernie Madoff -- was bound to get a laugh. The character of Cheryl, we are quickly told, is both Jewish and East Indian, so her boyfriend (Dimitri Moise, a lithe dancer) can refer to her as a “JIP -- Jewish Indian Princess.” Cheryl’s act in the talent contest is “the classic traditional Indian Odissi dance combined with the Israeli hora.” Amazingly, Narayanan and choreographer Jill Gorrie pull it off in an especially funny dance interlude.
So, part of me says this is an often annoying show that needs serious reworking, and who knows? Perhaps with a deep makeover, it could come out looking something like, maybe, Hairspray, another show in which a plump high schooler makes magic.