What You Should Know About Jasper in Deadland

Like anyone with a pulse, I has a sad that 54 Below’s RSO Fest is over. On the upside, I caught the final installment monday night, Jasper in Deadland, and I swear I flatlined at some point, be still my flailing, fangurling heart.

At the risk of turning my blog into Eff Yeah Ryan Scott Oliver (too late), I was blown away. Like, I was experiencing all these things - I think the mortals call them “feelings,” or as the kids would say, “FEELZ” - and this wasn’t even a full-dress or run-through. It played out like an abridged reading and concert, the cast singing and performing with scripts in hand. And bar none, I can’t recall a book or a score that has excited me this much, except maybe the other half-a-dozen RSO shows I’ve YouTube’d bits and pieces endlessly.

The good news is…Jasper in Deadland will get a production in New York this spring courtesy of Prospect Theater Company. Here’s what I learned last night that I am imparting to you lovely readers so you all can secure your tickets with confidence and the anticipation of multiple brainsplosions. Or you know, just another day of absorbing the twisted and brilliant world Ryan Scott Oliver creates.

- The premise revolves around the teenage Jasper falling into some underworld when Agnes, his best friend/soul mate/entire world, but not to be confused for his girlfriend (just go with it), attempts suicide. He searches through this alternate universe - appropriately called "Deadland" - to find her, but this universe has pratfalls and challenges of its own. Intrigued? You should be. It would be cliche if the two central characters were lovers - I turned to my Courtney half-way through and said as much. Their super-close, sort of destructive relationship, despite not being love interests, was more interesting then any  other alternative I could think of.

- The music, lovely readers. It's always about the music and Jasper in Deadland has this:

The fact that RSO dabbles in music that, stylistically, combines alternative, theater and dance with a gothic influence, yet not sound heavy or depressing (or even overwhelming), is astounding. The chorus of "la-la-las" had me dancing in my chair. Dancing. In my chair. While the characters are singing about despair or death...or something. It's that subversive marrying of drama and darkness with the uptempo, lively (and occasionally "happy" orchestrations) that always has me going back to the RSO well. He can stake his entire career on that skillset alone.

- To be blunt, I almost starting weeping several times. I got head-over-heels immersed in the characters and story from, like, the first song - a premise set-up song called “Goodbye Jasper.” And there is more of that to go-around: the above “Living Dead,” the show’s title number, a sweet, empowering hymn called “Lifesong” and the final number, the gorgeous sounding “One More Day of Snow.” Hit up the internet for some video/concert footage - treat yourself; you deserve it.

- I have to imagine the cast from this concert (or at least most of them) will just roll over into the full-fledged production. And that is a good thing - it is full of young talent. Jay Armstrong Johnson's Jasper is particularly strong, nailing a teenage angst trip to rival Spring Awakening's Moritz Stiefal. He also sings lovely and looks fantastic with less clothing on (a relevant detail because Jasper is a swimmer. Also, fan service!).

- The supporting cast includes a scene-stealing performance from F. Michael Haynie, playing a…whatever he was to perfection. The audience was absolutely enthralled as he disappeared into character, his snarling alone is award-worthy. Wesley Taylor's mayor/warden-like figure of Deadland is the perfect combination of sinister and high-camp sassing. And the rest of the ensemble - including the always awesome George Salazar - playing a variety of creatures characters adds some depth and imagination to the world-building aspect of “Deadland.”

- The only thing I am not crazy about are the music/lyrics in the song "Stroke by Stoke," a mid-show optimistic number about persevering through the hellhole Jasper has landed into. It sounds…off in the context. Like, Frank Wildhorn contributed a song with a whole bunch of swim-related metaphors. Look, I love me a Wildhorn power ballad of bollicks, but not in this environment when (1) the score is really strong otherwise and (2) I take RSO seriously and this show seriously, even when it is being whimsical and over-the-top.

- The show, as far as I can tell, is about regret and being consumed with it. The sacrifices we make for people that aren’t family or a love interest, but we still feel intertwined to. Navigating through life under a veil of confusion and confronting the consequences of your misperceptions. This “Deadland" is more then a metaphorical universe - it is a reality in of itself. If nothing else, one has to applaud the ambition on display here and how the show veers closer to the avant-garde without being balls-out pretentious or a performance art caricature. Coupled with the fact that it is entertaining as hell with a bunch of playlist-worthy songs and you’ll know what show I will be seeing multiple times this spring.

Photo Credit: RyanScottOliver.com
Video Credit: RyanScottOliver

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