by Leta Tremblay · August 26, 2015
Hell is for real.
But sitting in the plush seats at Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place for Gary Apple’s musical comedy is anything but hell. This hilariously funny romp through the underworld follows single father Richard (Christopher Sutton) on a hero’s journey to rescue his son, Davin (Madeline Kolker), from the devil. Along the way, he meets a slew of larger than life characters and encounters a host of ridiculous circumstances that will have you in stiches.
In a nutshell, Christmas is approaching and young Davin eats a piece of fruitcake from 1987. This sends him into a mysterious coma and when he awakes, he is no longer the sweet 6-year-old that his father remembers. Now he’s drawing satanic symbols and telling stories about Carl the Bogeyman (Zak Risinger) whose hands are too big to play the banjo. It’s when this banjo mysteriously turns up in Davin’s closet that Richard’s adventure to save his son’s eternal soul really begins.
Hell Is For Real is full of kitsch, puns, and snappy one-liners. One audience member noted that the songs are like earworms; they get stuck in your head. Songs with lyrics that use, “it’s like having a play date with Jesus” to rhyme with Chuck E. Cheese’s. There’s even a full on song and dance routine about taking selfies with Charles Manson (awesomely introduced by Vasthy Mompoint). And lines like the one that Richard delivers to Principal Bolton (Tom Carrozza) upon discovering that the educator is also a Satan worshiping Dark Priest; “What could you possibly know about Hell? You work with children.”
A strong ensemble carries this delightful absurdity and entertains for two hours without skipping a beat. Their energy as a group is infectious, fun, and energetic. Lori Hammel stood out as Davin’s doctor, teacher Mrs. Huvey, and Galiana, the mysterious woman with a long braid who Richard meets at St. Andrew’s. (“Like us on Facebook!” Father McDuffy (Carlos Lopez) implores.) She sends Richard off to the “bowels of hell” with her piece de resistance, “There Is Nothing More That I Can Say”, a song literally about saying nothing. Hammel commands the stage with tenacity, verve, and tremendous presence.
Director Jay Stern clearly captains the ship with a firm hand but he also needed some help pulling this monster off. The musical dance numbers brought to us by choreographer Lorna Ventura are outlandish, syncopated, and totally kick ass.
Costume designer Elivia Bovenzi didn’t skimp either. She’s gone above and beyond to make each of the dozens of characters populating this bizarre world a reality. Some favorites include a 6-foot tall Chuck E. Cheese mascot, a fully realized Santa ensemble with belly, and a tailored red suit for Lucifer himself played by the dashing Sean McDermott (Miss Saigon, Broadway).
At the end of all of the tomfoolery and crazy antics, Hell Is For Real is a story about a father’s love. After the great lengths that he goes to, there can’t be any doubt that Richard means it whole heartedly when he tells Davin at bedtime, “I love you more than cheese.”