As a reviewer, the first commitment you make is to review shows only once you have seen each complete show. The cardinal sin of reviewing is to leave before the performance is completely finished but to submit a review anyway (this happened to a show I was in junior year of undergrad, and it proved the reporter’s eventual downfall). Misprint presents the conundrum: how do you review a show that is presented as Part One of a two-part piece, but one that the team has chosen to present singly, as a first act to an audience paying full price (well, Fringe price) who won’t get the second act until much later if at all? Taking both things into consideration, the answer seems to be to review it as a full show while acknowledging that there is a second act both planned and in the works. In many ways that does not change the initial reaction to the play, though it’s difficult to judge story pacing and thematic import.
Misprint has been described as “Archie Comics meets The Truman Show,” and this is the most accurate description I can think of. Perpetually sixteen-year-old Elly (Lauren Toffan, also the show’s co-writer and director) is the only person in the world of Sunnydale (this fictional Sunnydale, sadly, contains no Buffy or vampires) who does not know that her town is actually the artificial setting of a long-running comic strip. The story is an interesting concept, and the takeoff on Archie comics pitch-perfect; as a child who spent too much time and money feeding an Archie Comics addiction, I found the twisted Archie characters were hilarious; all landed with me as adept take-offs. Unfortunately, while the performance was ultimately entertaining, much of the time this show is a triumph of style and archness (no pun intended) over substance.
The show has a strong candy-coloured, cartoon aesthetic; there is a clear director’s vision, but the execution doesn’t always work out. For example, the characters move as if they are two-dimensional, unable to turn as they shuffle sideways, in and out of frame. This is a neat sight gag, but it sacrifices the ability to be fluid in its attempts to land the joke for the rest of the show. The director appears to feel this constraint, as the particular movement is picked up and left off whenever it is convenient, which is jarring.
The music is often entertaining, but many of the lyrics are unfortunately banal (and not banal in the sense that life in Sunnydale is supposed to be banal, just a bit lazy-sounding), and sound like rambling stream of consciousness meditations instead of carefully constructed gems; though the characters are in many cases nervous and losing their grip, and not everyone needs to think in Sondheim, it just seems tired. Slightly more polished lyrics would be welcome, even if it is “just” a Fringe show.
The lyrics occasionally seem to be deliberately constructed in order not to rhyme; it was hard to tell whether this was to signify that something was wrong, or whether it was an affectation. Though there are enough rhymes to suggest this is untrue and not a consistent thing, it’s particularly strange to the ear when lines which could rhyme are twisted for no reason not to rhyme (not an exact example, but say a rhyme that could have been made with “me” and “forty-three” would be changed so that “me” is “rhymed” with “forty-two”). Lyrics aren't required to rhyme, and there is certainly a place in musical theatre for recitative, but if the lyricist isn't showing us why this piece needs to be in song specifically using the heightened rhythmic language of rhyme, the lyrics have to be particularly well-crafted to stand in their own blank verse. Exceptions that heighten interest in the show’s possibilities include the standout penultimate song, an Elly solo which actually reaches a kind of emotional truth, and a Betty-vs-Veronica duet between happy (future) homemaker Elly and jet-setting Monica with support from a classroom of girls direct from the chorus of Grease. The score’s strong point is its counterpoint melodies, which are particularly difficult to write, but manage to be successful and intriguing, suggesting that composer and co-writer Yan Li has some tricks up his sleeve.
Acting, like the sideways-shuffle-motion, is variable, mostly in the smaller parts where the risk of over-mugging increases; Elly and Monica (Kristen Sehn) are standouts (Monica, in particular, demands attention). The character of Charlie is deeply confusing; is he creepy and awful, just a bad actor (the character, that is), suffering from severe health problems or all of the above? His song, a version of that gospel song included in every ironic musical since Urinetown, is a sincerely off-putting piece about divesting clothing. As usual, the female vocals are generally stronger, but the singers mostly hit the right notes.
The only problem with the Truman Show meets Archie Comics premise is, besides predisposing me towards assumptions as to how the show would unfold, that it is never satisfactorily explained why Elly’s predicament a necessary thing to happen in this world. There is the issue of suspense in this case (not wanting to let on what exactly is going on before the big reveal), but premise can be explained without ruining this suspense. Why is it important or a big selling point that only Elly not know that she is in a comic book, and for this to be a comic book where time is circular and her 16th year is lived over and over? In fact, as far as we know, this doesn’t seem to be a major selling point to the audience; issue sales are apparently way down, and its not strongly conveyed that the audience of the comic knows Elly is ignorant of her situation. It’s also unexplained how everyone remains the same age, though perhaps a certain injection shown early on has something to do with it, and exactly how the comic world interacts with the real world. It’s just so hard to judge character, story, arcs, and particularly payoffs because this is only the first part. Perhaps in issue two?