Underneath all the lip-smacking irony, the moral of Kyle Jarrow’s coming-of-age pop musical “Gorilla Man” is really kind of sweet: Even if you are a revolting freak of nature, you have to accept who you are, make your own choices and take responsibility for your actions. What makes this little fable fun is that the show’s youthful hero must learn this existential lesson before he turns into a gorilla.
Jarrow is not exactly coy about his choice of metaphors. In “Armless,” his out-of-touch hero is missing a few limbs. In “President Harding Is a Rock Star,” the dodo president dances with a giant crab. And in “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” angelic grade-schoolers give lectures on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
As a showy symbol of the raging hormonal impulses of adolescence, a gorilla is no more a stretch of the imagination than a bat-boy — especially within the carnivallike context of Habib Azar’s production and the company’s broadly comic performance style.
Jason Fuchs registers bewilderment but also refreshing intelligence as Billy, the 14-year-old hero who awakens one morning to find fur growing on the backs of his hands. When he alerts his mother (Stephanie Bast, in a cheeky parody of all those brittle and self-centered modern moms who turn their kids into monsters), she tells him he is the son of the Gorilla Man, a legendary man-beast currently incarcerated in the Prison in the Mountains.
And here, in its entirety, is the inspired song lyric to the prison theme: “There is a prison in the mountains/It’s called the prison in the mountains/The prison in the mountains/The prison in the mountains/It’s called the prison in the mountains/The prison in the mountains/Oh yeah.”
As sung by the author-composer, who looks like a demented cherub bouncing up and down at the keyboard, this little ditty pretty much captures the show’s ironic spirit. Juvenile — but cute and clever.
After giving Billy the bad news that he is doomed to turn into a killer just like his father (“You don’t have a choice, honey”), mom shows the kid the door. So begins the hero’s Candidelike journey to enlightenment — and could he ever use a Pangloss to stretch his mind along the way. All alone and beset by dissembling fortunetellers, lying politicians and other modern-day versions of mythic dragons, Billy is constantly being told he can’t escape his “inevitable” fate — and who said life was fair, anyway?
When he finally meets his father, Billy gets the same song-and-dance from him. As it turns out, the Gorilla Man (Matt Walton, beating his macho chest and making a sexy display of himself) takes pride in his monstrous rampages. (“I’m an awful man,” he sings, “but I am not ashamed of who I am.”) Not surprisingly, the narcissistic beast advises his son not to feel guilty or try to suppress his own murderously antisocial instincts.
As far as it goes, Jarrow’s philosophical fable has a certain antic charm. But it doesn’t go far enough or even aim very high. Billy’s picaresque adventures don’t provide enough challenge or put him in any real danger. And unlike “Little Shop of Horrors,” which inhabits the same surreal landscape, “Gorilla Man” doesn’t go the distance and dramatize the atrocities committed by large, hairy, narcissistic apes.
“Because of the constraints of stage performance, we can’t let you see this massacre,” a narrator explains, when the Gorilla Man breaks out of prison and goes on a rampage. More critically, the show also draws the curtain on Billy’s transformation, evading the moment of his existential struggle with his own evil impulses. Now, that’s a cop-out.