It seems appropriate that the main character of the musical “Pilgrim” is a tinker, since the show itself feels like the work of a hobbyist who has soldered together mismatched influences — mythic fantasy novels and contemporary, pop-oriented musical theater — in a way that diminishes both forms of entertainment.
John Stothers, who for 10 years has been tinkering with the book, music and lyrics for “Pilgrim,” clearly intends to transport audiences into a rich, imaginary world — think the semi-medieval of Dungeons & Dragons — and to plumb deep themes of love, hope and freedom. But all he really delivers is an abundance of bombastic cliches and turgid music plus a plot that piles on repetitive convolutions.
“Pilgrim” focuses on a poor metal worker, named … Tinker (Tom Korbee), who falls for Anna (Jessica Rush), the pretty and privileged daughter of a Master of the Guild, the figures who rule this motley society. The Masters always appear on the upper levels of Tom Buderwitz’s scaffold-based set, and they’re announced and assisted by Machiavellian printer Ten Bosch (Eric Anderson).
The Masters are sort of generic fascists (is there something politically telling about the fact that Stothers selects union bosses as his villains of choice?), and mostly they seem to succeed by threatening everyone who resists them with being thrown outside the gates of the community. We don’t know what’s out there, and, apparently, neither does the chorus of “crafters” down below. But they recoil at the prospect of being banished there nonetheless.
When Anna’s father offers her hand to another Master, she and her lower-class flirting partner Tinker marry quickly. The rest of the tale is about Ten Bosch trying to manipulate Anna back to the world of the Masters, with Tinker spending most of his time in the “steen,” some made-up word that means “jail.” There, Tinker must learn to find coherence in the musings of madman (or is he really just faking?) Hieronymus (Robert Patteri).
It gets more complicated than that, involving dreams and metaphorical journeys and a key. But it would take awhile to unravel, and it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Mostly, it’s an opportunity to belt songs about … dreams and metaphorical journeys and keys.
Stothers, perhaps in an attempt to make everything “universal,” manages quite consistently to make almost everything cliche. Even his cliches are cliche: Characters sing relentlessly about moving toward the light. “Into the light,” the show both starts and ends, “There we must go./Forward to fight our greatest foe.” And then the song deepens: “Follow the spark, there in the night./Out of the darkness and into the light.”
It’s not all that bad, but close, and this is the emotional and thematic climax.
The show is currently playing at the oft-shuttered Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood, and it’s staged with epic commitment — if not epic production values — by busy local director Nick DeGruccio, who finds plenty of creative efficiencies with the set; Steven Young’s lighting provides the stark light and shadows to communicate the grimness and griminess of this world, from which the characters yearn to emerge.
The costumes, though, are amusing for all the wrong reasons, seeming like some combination of the musicals “Rags,” “Les Miserables” and “Cats,” the latter particularly if one considers the hairdos. The acrobats who enter on occasion for some Cirque-ish effects during dream sequences wear black leather outfits, which raises the question of whether the scenes represent Tinker’s prophetic nightmare (intended) or an S&M fantasy (probably not intended).
The cast members gamely launch into the scenes and the songs, but they’re not always sure how seriously to take them. As the villain, Eric Anderson stands out largely because he allows his character to overflow into flamboyant camp, shuffling his shoulders in a gesture of manipulative evil. It’s over-the-top, and fitfully fun to watch.
The rest are resolutely sincere, perhaps to a fault. They work really, really hard to make Stothers’ show work, and there’s something almost noble about their efforts.
Let’s just say the key to unlocking the rewards of “Pilgrim” remains to be found.