The charming musical-in-the-rough that was Bronies: The Musical at this past summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival has since been polished into the sparklingly rainbow-hued gem now getting its official World Premiere Production at the Third Street Theatre. Simply put, Bronies: The Musical is the feel-best show in town.
Little did the creators of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic realize when the animated TV series first aired in 2010 that in addition to its target pre-teen female demographic, “unicorn pony” Twilight Sparkle and her fellow equine friends would soon become the object of obsession of a whole new group of fans—the grown men we now call “bronies,” i.e. bros who love cartoon ponies.
And why not? As our narrator Keith informs us, “Ponies inspire goodness. They are creative muses. They are the spirits of caring, truth, joy, trust, sharing and love. And who couldn’t use a little more love?”
Upon that premise, composer Joe Green and book-&-lyrics writers Heidi Powers and Tom Moore created the Hollywood Fringe Festival Best Musical Award winner, a full-length, song-packed, plot-driven musical delight given added luster this second time round.
Bronies: The Musical focuses on three bronies in particular: bullied high school nerd Tyler (Richy Storrs), his basketball jock nemesis Austin (Taylor Helmbodt), and 20something school janitor Jacob (Josey Montana McCoy).
Not only does our heroes’ love for ponies bring about the most unlikely of friendships, romance blooms for each—Tyler with girl brony Paige (Molly Gilman), Austin with cheerleader Madison (Anna Grace Barlow), and Jacob with lanky DJ Keith (Mark Gelsomini).
Along the way, the three soon-to-be couples, their parents (Gabby Sanalitro as Tyler’s mom and Tom G. McMahon as Jacob’s high school principal dad), Austin’s teammates (Joey Acuna and Blaine Miller), and Madison’s fellow cheerleaders (Rachel Hirshee and Hannah M. James) learn the meaning of acceptance from 35-year-old brony master Hank (Greene) and above all from a quartet of puppet-sporting Ponies in ’60s girl-group mode: Blue Pony Brielle Batino, White Pony Stephanie Hayslip, Pink Pony Shelley Regner, and Yellow Pony Charlotte Mary Wen.
Bronies’ clever, engaging book celebrates diversity as its dozen-and-a-half tuneful songs (like the ever-so-catchy show-opening extended production number “Sad Trombone”) advance plot and make points that could easily turn Bronies: The Musical into a high school, LTBT, and theater-in-general hit.
Powers and Moore’s lyrics are sharp and original. Jacob’s father loves his “-ilities” (responsibility, stability, dependability), but as Jacob puts it, “they make me feel so ill at ease.” The lyricists let us fill in the rhyming blanks in Tyler’s mom’s hilarious “Urges,” the well-meaning Mrs. Tyler not allowed by her son to complete phrases like “Don’t be ashamed of it, you should feel good. There’s nothing wrong with someone polishing _____.” And the writers know when to go the inspirational route, as in the show’s “Techno Delight Finale” that has everyone singing along to “Just love what you love what you love what you love.” (How can you not love it!)
As entertaining as Bronies: The Musical was at the Fringe, it feels almost brand-new with 2013-2014 Scenie-winning Director Of The Year Richard Israel and 2013-2014 Scenie-winning Choreographer Of The Year John Todd adding their own magical touches. (Watch how each Pony’s distinctive personality meshes with her matching Bronie and the way each serves as her Bronie’s inner voice and life coach.)
The pony quartet are every bit as Dream(girls)y as ever, fantasy creatures looking extra fabulous this time round in the glamorous, brand-spanking-new gowns confectioned for them by Costume Design Of The Year Scenie winner Michael Mullen. At the same time, the show’s real-life characters are more authentic now, a subtle tonal shift that adds to the emotional punch of Bronies’ “It Gets Better” message because even more than at the Fringe, we can believe in Keith, Tyler, and Brandon and the folks around them.
Moving from the cramped Fringe Festival Lounge Theatre stage to the more expansive one offered on Third Street (halfway between The Grove/Farmers Market and the Beverly Center) allows director Israel to follow all three stories simultaneously while providing choreographer Todd with the room he needs for Bronies’ full-cast production numbers, which the production’s stellar ensemble of seventeen execute with abundant flair.
In addition to costume designer Mullen’s gorgeously eclectic outfits (everything from sequins to June Cleaver to grunge), scenic designer Joel Daavid’s mix of the fanciful and the realistic, Brandon Baruch’s vivid Technicolor lighting design, Russ Walko’s adorable Ponies puppets, Nicholas Acciani’s ponies and other assorted props, Byron J. Battista’s whimsical wigs, and sound designer Chay Alexander’s crystal-clear mix of instrumentals and voices make for as topnotch a production design as any musical could wish for.
If Bronies Fringe Festival cast was a bunch of terrific actors managing to fit into the characters created by book writers Powers and Moore, director Israel and casting director Amy Lieberman have packed Bronies’ World Premiere Production with performers already a perfect fit with our beleaguered but ultimately victorious trio of heroes and the folks around them.
And who could ask for a more ideal threesome than the pair of 2013-2104 Scenie-winners and the L.A. newcomer who bring them to appealing life, McCoy’s infectious boy-next-door charm, Storrs’ magnetism and versatility, and Helmboldt’s princely good looks and matching pipes making for a couldn’t-be better trio of leads.
Barlow’s vivacious Madison, Gilman’s spunky Paige, and Gelsomini’s quirky Keith are all three winners as well, and Hirshee and James do their prettiest and most irresistible mean girls act opposite terrific tough guy terrors Acuna and Miller.
As for the adults, McMahon’s frustrated father, Greene’s big-hearted storekeeper, and above all Sanalitro’s force-of-nature Mom are yet another trio of bang-up performances.
Last but not least are the absolutely sensational Pony quartet of Batino, Hayslip, Regner, and Wen, each more gorgeous (and gorgeously voiced) than the next, and when all four sets of vocal cords are blended in Dreamgirls harmonies, audience cheers are sure to follow.
As for those harmonies, they are in expert hands indeed with Jennifer Lin as musical director, and Lin, Urie Norris, Carlos Flores, and Sam Webster providing high-energy live accompaniment on keyboards, bass, and drums. (Kudos too to orchestrator Ryan O’Connell.).
Ken Phillips is stage manager. Libby Letlow is assistant director and puppetry coach. Rebecca Raines is production technician and Amy Schott productions coordinator.
It’s hard to imagine a more varied quartet of musicals than Third Street Theatre’s four annual September shows so far—Falsettos, The Full Monty, The Burnt-Part Boys, and now Bronies: The Musical, though with dynamic duo Israel and Todd helming them all, it’s no wonder all four have been winners.
A crowd-pleaser with an uplifting message ever so deftly snuck in, Bronies: The Musical makes it a Fab Four in a row.
Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third Street, West Hollywood.
September 27, 2014