Irked by kidlit’s resolutely hetero nature, recent UCLA grad Brian Pugach has singlehandedly contrived a tuner drenched in prince-on-prince amour in “The Next Fairy Tale,” premiering at the Celebration. This maiden trek into “Once Upon a Mattress” territory doesn’t exactly spin straw into gold. Never as funny as it wants to be, it groans under a performance style weirdly comprising two parts children’s theater to one part drag revue. But magic lurks here and there, and the ambitious Pugach is certainly a talent to watch – if not now, perhaps happily ever after.
In Victoria Profitt’s conventional though pretty storybook setting – painted foresty backdrop; castle battlements; you get the picture – childhood legends are presided over by a sort of Trilateral Commission of fairy godmothers. These color-coordinated dames gather “Every Hundred Years” (a sprightly opening ditty) around the Magic Mirror, much as we lined up for each new Harry Potter tome, to learn what new yarn will shoot to #1.
Given the effete flamboyance of mirror man Charls Sedgwick Hall, no one should be surprised when he unveils Prince Copernicus (Christopher Maikish) to topline “the tale the world needs most” by rescuing true love Prince Helio (Patrick Gomez) from dragon and high tower.
But toadstools! And jumping gingerbread!, as the characters are wont to exclaim. Affronted godmistress Minerva (Gina Torrecilla), the Michele Bachmann of fairyland, ensures the quest’s failure by assigning it to inept apprentice Hazel, even less ept in the excruciatingly tremulous hands of Rachel Genevieve.
No born storyteller, Pugach clutters his saga with confusing subplots and irrelevant side trips to places like Avaricia (yeah, they’re greedy there). Right now Minerva’s arc is the clearest and most welcome, Hazel’s the least defined. Helmer Michael A. Shepperd would do well to find moments where she can grow in confidence at least temporarily, before Genevieve hyperventilates herself into a coma.
Musically, jaunty tunes and tricky rhythms suggest the youthful prodigy has played no cast albums recorded after 1972, but given the project’s sunnily retro nature, that’s actually an asset. The crusade goes into hibernation whenever numbers like “Happy Huggable Town” and “More Than a Tower” belabor a single extraneous note, but when Pugach clicks he really clicks. “Charming” and “Cinderella Story” find the balance of naivete and sophistication to which “The Next Fairy Tale” aspires overall.
The absence of laughs is another matter. Pugach doggedly but fruitlessly (a better pun than most in the show) inserts nudge-nudge references from Grimm, Andersen and Hollywood, including “Oz” for the inevitable friend-of-Dorothy snapper. “Shrek” made this sort of thing look easy, but these lyrics and dialogue drip with jokes that, as Peter Pan might say, never land.
Torrecilla and Maikish come off best, models of restraint relative to castmates prone to substituting funny voices and physical affectation for personality. Indeed, “The Next Fairy Tale” scores whenever it’s content to stop pushing and merely relax, in offhand sleight-of-hand illusions from consultant “Ms.gician” Joyce Basch; Jeffrey Polk’s effortless choreography; and Raffel Sarabia’s bright yet understated costumes. When politics pushes out romance to get all earnest and down-with-Prop. 8, the tuner becomes quietly, laudably persuasive.
Promising as Pugach is, he might consider heeding his own “no one can do it alone” theme to pull a good gag man and plotting specialist out of a hat. The better to see and hear him with, my dear.