Amid all this dreariness, both from the weather getting grayer and Britain’s (slash the world’s) prospects looking bleaker, a goofy superhero musical is exactly what the doctor ordered. (Unless your doctor has actually prescribed you medicine, then take that. (Hooray for universal healthcare.)) Leaning heavily on the spoof side of things, Eugenius! is an easy to enjoy ‘80s-set romp of a familiar comic book story – dorky boy sketches out his feelings and desires in fantastical comic form, proves he has talent, is more than just a dork – but with a clever and, yes, ‘eunique’ (their word) take. From creators Chris Wilkins and Ben Adams, this amusing, cheerful musical needs work before its next incarnation, but what’s there now is happy, silly fun.
As friends/sidekicks/featured actors in musicals go, Eugene’s are pretty wonderful. Feris (Daniel Buckley) is a sweaty goofball with only one ‘r’ but with nonstop ‘80s references and an impeccable Yoda impression to match his Sloth one. Janey (Laura Baldwin) is a supportive, sweet girl who loves Eugene but is scared she’s stuck in the friend zone. I loved that they had the cliche story of a friend in love with another friend who is always complaining about being in the friend zone, but switched the typical pattern and made it a girl. It’s much sweeter than way and not gross like all guys complaining about the zone are.
When a Hollywood studio sends minions around America to find the next big thing, and they inexplicably go to high schools and beg students to just say something, Janey and Feris urge Eugene to present his work. The rep loves it and flies Eugene straight to Hollywood. I thought this part was going to be a dream but then the rest of the show is in Hollywood so it’s the kind of show you just roll with, okay. My least favorite part of the show was the intro to Hollywood song dedicated to the big studio executive (really the most annoying part of the show (well, tied for first; you’ll see)) about how you have to kiss his ass to get anywhere. It’s called “A Little Kiss Ass” and it does not work musically. I spent those five minutes wishing that they had paid for the rights to the most amazing Hollywood executive introduction song, Shaiman and Wittman’s one from Smash – “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” – and then I sang it in my head instead. And we liked it and we loved it.
So they’re making a big movie about Eugene’s comic book story, which is about a superhero called Tough Man. On a faraway planet called Itsaballoon, the rulers were welcoming a new baby, but it turned out to be two, which was bad luck because a prophecy declared that twins would destroy their planet or something. So they sent the weaker one (determined during a truly hilarious bit), named Hector, out into space with a robot, but this kid would grow up with the sole aim of destroying his luckier twin brother, Tough Man. But Tough Man – ‘tough but fair’ – would make sure that justice always won out. And he would make sure that his sidekick Super Hot Lady (it IS a teenage boy’s work, after all) never touched him because that would weaken him.
But plot twist of all plot twists, as they’re making Eugene’s movie, Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott, amazing) hears the dumbest actor ever proclaim that he’s Tough Man on set, and he sets course for the Hollywood studio. Yes, Hector is real, and really looking for his brother. Dun dun dunnnn! I loved this twist (and the others to come!), but the book was messy in act two. The characters never showed any real realization or coming to terms with the fact that Hector was actually real, and it wasn’t clear that they realized Eugene had dreamt up a true story. Also, there is too much unnecessary stuff in the second half, and it drags whenever Hector isn’t around (he really is the best). And while it ended all well and good, I wish they made a bigger show of pointing out why Eugene had been dreaming of this story. Using his dad more effectively would help with Eugene’s arc, especially if clarified whether he was who we now assume he was.
That aforementioned ‘unnecessary stuff’ in act two is also the aforementioned ‘most annoying part of the show’. Feris, the stereotypical loony and kind of gross sidekick, has a love song with the actress cast as Super Hot Lady in the movie, and it’s called ‘The No Pants Dance’, and they need to completely cut the song and everything mentioned about the two of them together. It’s infuriating to have a clever show fall back on THE MOST annoying, tired trope there is – the messy overweight boy catching the eye of a, well, a super hot lady. First of all, he is a HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, so probably underage so COME ON. Second, Kevin James has already tired out all variations on this theme and we’re all tired of it so everyone from now on please cut it out and stop feeling the need to ‘gift’ a hot woman onto a non-hot boy like he deserves it for being not cool or something. It’s beyond irritating, and it’s actually offensive I think to every kind of person, hot or not.
Other than my two big gripes, it’s a pleasant, amiable show. While there’s no real need to set it in America, I was impressed by all the leads’ solid mid-Western accents. Of course there were some wonky accents. The school bully was doing a full-on New York mobster one, while Eugene’s father was a southerner? It was distracting. And they clearly didn’t have an American go over the book, because everyone kept saying ‘whilst’ instead of ‘while’ and using plural verbs for mass nouns (ugh). Just let me go over all books, guys. But anyway, I love that it’s set in the ‘80s, and they really make it clear with the great lighting and the music. Some of the music was very catchy, but I am concerned that several songs are direct copies of famous ‘80s power ballads. Janey and Eugene’s 11 o’clock number was hundo p Celine’s “Where Does My Heart Beat Now”, while the big Act I ender used the exact instrumentals of “King of Wishful Thinking”. It’s unclear if this was accidental infringement from trying to achieve classic ‘80s sounds, or if these were purposeful ‘homages’. Whichever it is, they need to be clearer about it, because with the line so blurry I’d be worried about people getting the wrong idea (*cough* like lawyers who used to do IP *cough*).
The best numbers go to Janey and Eugene, as they should. Both actors are perfectly cast, and while I wish their nerd personalities, voices, and overall affects were more pronounced so that their transformations stood out more drastically, they were great. I was ready to complain about Janey’s too-sincere Act One ballad not fitting with the mood of the work, but then it turned into a hilarious and perfect ‘80s power ballad, complete with wind machine treatment. Nailing the right tone of the piece with a move like that helps this show succeed, and fixing all the parts where the tone is off would make it amazing.
Hmm, I feel like I’ve complained a lot, but you know what I (and Coach from ‘Love and Basketball’) say. With a few fixes, I think this show could be really great, and it should be a staple in high schools and colleges. As it is, it’s tons of fun and I’m so happy I saw it. They are using that small stage so well, and having something so fresh and exciting in London theatre is a treat.
Eugenius! closes at The Other Palace on Sunday, so if you are in London go quick. It was supposed to transfer to the West End, but they just announced that that fell through due to an investor pulling out (so it won't get preeeeeegnannnnnnnnnnnnt). I hope they get another chance to hit the West End in the future - maybe after taking the above suggestions into account.