In a way, SCOTLAND, PA is the perfect musical for the Donald Trump era.
It says get what you want, no matter what it takes. Don’t worry about the people you might hurt along the way. As long as you get rich and famous, that’s all that matters.
One could say the same thing about William Shakespeare’s MACBETH – and with good reason. This new musical at Roundabout’s Laura Pels’ Theatre fully acknowledges that it was inspired by The Scottish Play.
But MACBETH is comparatively easier to take because its nefarious characters are centuries removed from us. That they’re natives of a foreign country and culture helps, too.
Conversely, Scotland, PA is a real American town and seems like one here. Although the show is set 44 years ago, it’s still within the time-and-place wheelhouse of many theatergoers who’ll attend. That makes it all the more real, much more so than Shakespeare’s hit of the 1606-1607 season.
If the title SCOTLAND, PA sounds at all familiar, you may have heard of (or even have seen) the 2001 film that inspired bookwriter Michael Mitnick and songwriter Adam Gwon to musicalize the project.
Mac and Pat work for Duncan, who has a fast-foodery in the eponymous small town. Mac comes up with one good idea after another that would revolutionize the business. We know they’re worthy notions, because they’ve all come to pass in the world of hamburger joints.
Duncan pooh-poohs every one of them, which frustrates Mac. We feel bad for the guy, because we know he’s a visionary who deserves his chance.
So we want him to leave and succeed on his own. Rags-to-riches stories never go out of date.
Mac’s wife Pat instead has a short-term solution that leads to robbery — and worse. If you know MACBETH, you know what’s going to happen.
Even if you don’t, you might not welcome some wicked things that do come. In our own jobs, we’ve all had good ideas that our then-bosses shot down, causing us the exasperation that bonds us with Mac. This show makes us care for him. We want him to succeed.
But we don’t want him to succeed at the expense of hurting others.
(And “hurting,” believe me, is quite the euphemism.)
Granted, the show adheres to the so-called “ten-minute rule” that says you must inform the audience what type of show you have as soon as possible. The creators and director Lonny Price honor this by establishing right away that it’s a spoof by having MACBETH’s three Weird Sisters come to life as, as the program states, “The Stoners.”
(One can tell who in the audience has indulged by a tell-tale moment when the trio does something indigenous to marijuana.)
However, by the time Mac starts giving out his good ideas and Pat shows that she believes in him, we’re emotionally involved and on their side. Then the authors pull the sympathetic and empathetic rug from under us.
How closely Mitnick kept to the screenplay – and which funny lines he’s borrowed and which he’s invented – can only be told by the movie’s fans (and there are many). Whatever the case, you’re bound to laugh every now and then (although usually at some character’s expense).
Gwon is a superb lyricist who knows where to put the jokes (and here there are many, too). How refreshing that he always goes for the correct rhyme and rarely accents the wrong syllable.
He may also be a wonderful composer, too, but you can’t prove it by this score. The very nature of this spoofy-scary show demands numbers written in eighth-notes that are delivered in frenetic tempos. That approach rarely results in a good showcase for a composer.
Those who know the film will also find one significant change of character: Christopher Walken plays Detective McDuff there; Megan Lawrence portrays her here. One of Price’s greatest achievements is getting Lawrence to keep from giving her one of her usual over-the-top, utterly phony, anything-for-a-laugh performances. Here she plays her character as a genuine human being, which may well astonish those who long ago ever gave up any hope that she could tone it down.
Price, who’s directed splendidly and has kept matters moving swiftly, has chosen other fine and game cast members. Alysha Umphress leads the three witches’ stand-in group in her distinctively brassy fashion.
Duncan is Mac’s boss, whom Jeb Brown plays with seen-it-all and know-it-all authority. As the slacker stoner nicknamed Banko, Jay Armstrong Johnson gets a laugh almost every time he must deliver a line.
Ryan McCartan and Taylor Iman Jones have the toughest roles, he as Mac, she as Pat. They hold onto our sympathy longer than many other actors would have been able to. Now let’s see a show where we can root for them beyond Act One, Scene Five.