Arts and Culture Editor
“Treasure Island” at The Fulton Theatre, is a new musical written by The Fulton’s own Marc Robin and his partner Curt Dale Clark. They first premiered their new musical at the theatre in 2008 and have been tweaking it ever since. Now, ten years later, the team has raised the sails again on their musical in a truly impressive and ambitious production.
The musical is based off of the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson of the same name. The plot follows the newly orphaned Jim Hawkins (Michael Nigro), who after the death of his father finds out that he inherits a treasure map. With the help of Dr. David Livesey (James Patterson) and the flashy Squire John Trelawney (Michael Iannucci), the three men set off on a journey of discovery where they meet colorful characters who include Captain Alexander Smollett (David Girolmo) and the dastardly Long John Silver (Jeremiah James). The pirates are initially nice to the three new sailors, but all hell breaks loose once the greedy pirates learn of the treasure map that young Jim is hiding.
Michael Nigro is a revelation as Jim Hawkins. His singing in numbers like “Miracles/Look At Me” is very strong and impressive. He captures the initial naivety of young Jim very well, but it is the journey of maturity that Hawkins goes on that really impresses. When the audience first meets Jim, he is a timid boy still very much grieving the loss of his father. Throughout the musical, Hawkins develops strong relationships with the various characters, but most especially with Jeremiah James’s Long John Silver. Nigro portrays the son-like bond with the wicked pirate in an extremely heartfelt manner that truly is the backbone of this piece. However, the cliché ridden eleven o’clock number, “Calm Before The Storm,” in particular with generic lyrics like “This is the moment,” and “Seize the day,” is not the highest point in Robin’s score; but Nigro sells this number extremely well, and that is no easy task. All in all, Nigro leads this musical with good nature and heart in this wonderful performance.
Jeremiah James is an absolute blast as Long John Silver. Although initially underwhelming in the the character’s introductory number, “Joys of Cooking,” James managed to display great vulnerability and excellent chemistry with Nigro’s Jim Hawkins. Their scene together in the back of the ship where James sings the ballad “Someday” was one of the strongest in the show. It revealed great depth and elicited audience sympathy for the Long John Silver character, and showed off James’s impressive voice very well. Although, James is a joy in the first act turn as the more sympathetic side of Long John, it is in act two where Jeremiah James really gets to transform and play as the conniving pirate we all know and love to hate. He swings his cape with style and delivers his deliciously dastardly lines with campy panache. James is responsible for bringing much of the life to the duller second act and almost walks away with the entire show in his irresistible performance.
James Patterson and Michael Iannucci have great fun as the uptight Dr. David Livesey and the more flashily flamboyant Squire John Trelawney. At least for the first half of the show, the pair are very entertaining as Dr. David Livesey is the literal straight man to the innuendo filled Squire John Trelawney. As the musical goes on though, the Squire Trelawney character turns into a caricature that is neither amusing nor entertaining. The pair does the same bit repeatedly, with Dr. David Livesey trying to settle down the loose cannon nature of Squire John Trelawney, and it just gets old. The actors James Patterson and Michael Iannucci do a fine and respectable job in their roles, but the writing simply does not give them very much to work with.
Other standouts in the cast include David Girolmo as the noble Captain Alexander Smollett. Girolmo brings a nice combination of authority and genuine care that makes this captain one worth rooting for. Jason Simon is also a lot of fun as the loud yet awkward George Merry. He truly commits to his character and the ridiculous situations that the plot puts him in, and is a total joy throughout. Although he tries his best, James Michael Reily is saddled with a thankless role as the cheese obsessed Ben Gunn who Nigro’s Jim Hawkins meets in the musical’s second act. His character hobbles around the stage with a deranged look in his eyes and just makes puns about cheese; it is comical for about a minute, but just gets old as the same joke gets repeated over and over. Nevertheless, the rest of the all-male cast leads this musical with true vigor and excitement.
Thomas M. Ryan’s towering set design is truly a marvel. With detailed and artful backdrops for even the shorter introductory scenes in the pirate ships pier, the design work astounds from the very beginning. The pinnacle of Thomas M. Ryan’s scenic design for this production is no doubt the pirate ship where most of the first act takes place. It is jaw-dropping in its sheer size as the scenic piece even extends past the proscenium. When the boat turns to reveal the other side of the ship in the exciting song “Mutiny”, it is truly something to behold. The Fulton has gotten more and more ambitious with their designs and they may have reached a new high with Ryan’s awe-inspiring pirate ship. Now, the set does get a bit more minimalistic and frankly underwhelming in the piece’s island-set second half, but the sets in act one are certainly worth the price of admission alone.
Paul Black’s lighting design is particularly striking and compliments the epic scope of Ryan’s sets perfectly. While Ryan’s set takes more of a backseat in act two, it is also where Black’s lighting becomes even more evocative. With bright greens and oranges and blues, with light alone Ryan creates an island that is exciting and teeming with engaging life. It is pretty magical and almost overwhelming when the setting is first revealed at the top of act two. Special mention must also be given to Ryan J. Moller’s stunningly detailed costumes for this work. Every single cape and hat is filled to the brim with lovely period detail and a zest that is purely theatrical. When the pirates first come on stage in their full drag, it is certainly a sight to see. The reveal of Long John Silver at the end of act one is particularly thrilling as Moller’s stunningly red cape for the legendary pirate puts on a show of its own. All of the costumes are nothing short of remarkable and are commendable with the rest of the creative elements.
The book and lyrics by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark are certainly an interesting case. The book in its most dramatic moments for the most part work very well and brings much heart and depth to these characters. When the musical tries to be campier or sillier, the piece mostly falls flat. As stated earlier, the main comedic foils of Dr. David Livesey, Squire John Trelawney and Ben Gunn are not very successful and just feel forced. The score with music from Marc Robin and lyrics by both Robin and Clark, although a worthy effort, feels much too derivative of other works that have come before it. The score has the epic sound of something like Les Miserables, but with none of the complexity or sophistication of that work.
There are some bright spots, like the rousing number “Mutiny”, but that song even after the second or third reprise starts to become monotonous. Long John Silver’s ballad “Someday” is generally very strong as it manages to be tuneful while also advancing the plot and character. Many of the songs are harder to pick out as they all have a similar sound, and not always in a good way either.
What does help greatly are the orchestrations by David Siegel that are played magnificently by the 17 piece live orchestra. The underscoring gives much more heft to the otherwise mediocre score and adds the right amount of suspense to the most dramatic moments of Robin and Clark’s book. Along with writing the book and score, Robin and Clark also co-directed the piece, and with that they mostly did a respectable job. Some of the fight scenes while well-choreographed by Joseph Travers simply go on for too long, which does diminish some of the fire and excitement within the act one finale. The biggest criticism is that the book and score don’t always cohesively flow together, as there were points throughout the generally rushed second act where songs would simply come out of nowhere, which is never good. The sound design by Jacob Mishler is a bit messy at times as dialogue and lyrics are hard to discern over the large orchestra and English accents.
Although not perfect, the Fulton’s “Treasure Island” is certainly an admirable effort. Most of the audience at this critic’s performance seemed to love the show, and it definitely does tell a strong story and boasts some truly excellent performances and fabulous pieces of stagecraft. For those reasons, “Treasure Island” is a musical worth seeking out and supporting as the elements that do work in this production are nothing short of exceptional.