Innovative musical theater triple-threats Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet pay affectionate, nostalgic tribute to mid-1980s video games in Claudio Quest, a delightfully tuneful Chance Theater West Coast Premiere with particular appeal to Mario Bros. franchise fans.

Like their Nintendo counterparts Mario and Luigi, siblings Claudio (aka Player 1) and Luis (Player 2) find themselves on a mission to rescue a royal beauty, in this case King Eggplant’s first-born child Poinsettia.

Unfortunately for the Claudio Bros., their favorite “pixel pixie” has once again been taken captive by a homicidal fire-breathing platypus named Bruiser (think Mario Bros.’ Bowser), a duckbilled demon who, to his credit, has been undergoing therapy for his psychiatric ills.

Audience members are soon cued in to some essential rules of the game.

1) Introductory instructions cannot be skipped. 2) Players must navigate worlds like River World, Volcano World, etc. 3) As “possessor of the golden eggplant” (worn round the neck medallion style), only Claudio can be Player 1. 4) Eggplants give you extra lives. 5) Player Number 2 can transfer lives to Player Number 1. 6) Demented veggies called anagadoos are there to be stomped on.

Got that?

If all this seems Greek to you, (i.e. if like this reviewer, you’ve never played a video game in your life), you might find yourself tuning out whenever Claudio Quest gets too game-specific.

Fortunately, creative partners Fornarola and Pailet have come up with an eclectic bunch of hummable songs with lyrics every bit as clever and funny as the lines they’ve given their decidedly colorful characters to say.

Take Bruiser’s “Platypus Heart,” which has the egg-laying mammal promising his beloved Poinsettia, “I will love you around the clock, with my enormous platypus … heart” or the seductive “I’m ninety-six percent waterproof, but still slippery … when wet.”

And speaking of this “purple pile of self-loathing,” I defy anyone not to at least chuckle when Bruiser tells his Brooklyn-accented shrink, “Every time I go to the kingdom to ask her to coffee, I get nervous and I kidnap her!”

Still, Claudio Quest is at its most memorable when focusing on its characters’ personal relationships and their life-journey challenges, and that includes the “real-life” older-younger sibling gamers who frame Claudio Bros.’ video quest.

Bruiser’s Beast-life efforts to get the Beauty of his dreams to see the man behind the duckbill and a pair of younger siblings’ struggles to emerge from older bro and sis’s shadows provide inspiration for some of Claudio Quest’s best songs, the romantic, rib-tickling three-quarter-time “The Platypus Song,” the self-empowering “Luis’s Turn,” the girl-power duet “More Than One Way,” and the goose bump-inducing R&B ballad “Keep Moving Right.”

(“Moon Power,” Claudio, Luis, and Fish’s let’s-get-high salute to the “powerful elixir” known as “moon juice,” on the other hand, left me out of the loop.)

Claudio Quest’s cast of characters are as engagingly written as they are winningly performed on the Cripe Stage under Pailet’s sparkling direction.

Andrew Puente, fresh from playing Vietnam-bound Eddie Birdlace in the Chance’s Dogfight, returns with yet another dynamic star turn as second-fiddle Luis, whose road to self-discovery anchors Claudio Quest as it earns audience affection and cheers.

Charismatic Chance newcomer Beau Brians’ Claudio has a voice as powerful as his bulging biceps, the sparkling Monika Pena makes for a feisty and fabulous Princess Fish (even sporting a Mario Bros. mustache throughout), and Kim Dalton’s deliciously full-of-herself Poinsettia’s sky-high soprano could give Wicked’s Galinda a run for her money.

Big-baritoned Miguel Cardenas’s big-haired Bruiser is as outrageously funny as he is heartstrings-tugging, and Kellie Spill is a dry-humored treat as Elgafink, a cat-glasses-sporting therapist who can follow a “Let’s look a bit deeper into your frustrations” with a “Well, our time’s up for today” without missing a breath.

Ensemble members Elise Borgfeldt (Kevin The Turtle), Amy Rebecca King (King Eggplant), Ashley Arlene Nelson (Boof), Joseph Ott (Big Brother, Gary), and Jimmy Saiz (Steve The Turtle) are all triple-threat-tastic, young Dylan Shube (Little Brother) is a charmer, and “Y,” Claudio Quest’s inanimate answer to Super Mario World’s anthropomorphic green dino Yoshi, wins hearts without uttering a word.

The entire Claudio Quest creative team deserve highest marks for honoring the musical’s ‘80’s video game  roots in a multitude of ways, from the kicks and jabs of choreographer Maxx Reed’s delightfully inventive choreography, to scenic designer Fred Kinney’s movable multi-level platforms from which characters jump one to another, to Justin Melillo’s Nintendo-inspired projections, to Rachael Lorenzetti’s cosplay-ready costumes and Marci Alberti’s matching wigs, all of the above lit to vibrant effect by Matt Schleicher.

As he did in Pailet’s Loch Ness, a new musical two years back, musical director Ryan O’Connell has layered prerecorded instrumental tracks to give Claudio Quest the full orchestrations it deserves, with special snaps to O’Connell and sound design whiz Ryan Brodkin for integrating the distinctive musical tones of 1980s video games from song to song.

Jack Reid alternates with Shube as Little Brother. Courtny Greenough is stage manager. Mary Kay Fyda-Mar is executive producer.

Ultimately, though it helps to be (or have been) a video gamer to fully enjoy its West Coast Premiere, the ingenious, inspiring, family-friendly Claudio Quest proves yet another Chance Theater winner.

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–Steven Stanley
February 4, 2017
Photos: Doug Catiller/True Image Studio

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