Claudio Quest Parodies Nintendo’s Mario Games to Rollicking, Silly Results

Has anyone or anything done comparatively so little and become so iconic as the brothers Mario and Luigi? Okay, lots of things have (hello, Kardashian World Order and all other shitbirds who have no talent or spark other than cultivating the cult of personality). But be that as it may, Mario, the mustachioed, red-capped, blue-overall-clad character who debuted in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong with one weapon in his arsenal—jumping—and his second-fiddle brother, Luigi, who debuted in 1983’s Mario Brothers, have proven a most ubiquitous brand, from scores of video games on multiple consoles to TV, film, comics and nearly every kind of merchandise you can think of. Not bad for a couple of nondescript Italian-American plumbers who got their start by spending more time in the New York City sewers than Killer Croc does in Gotham City’s.

The latest iteration is the musical Claudio Quest, receiving its West Coast premiere at the Chance Theater. For obvious reasons (COPYRIGHT!), creators Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet have had to fudge everything from the brothers’ names (Claudio and Luis) to the setting (Mushroom Land is now Eggplant Land) to the villain (Bowser to Bruiser). Even our hapless Princess Toadstool is now Princess Poinsettia. But make no mistake, this is 1985’s Super Mario Brothers, albeit a song-and-dance parody that is light-hearted most of the time, introspective a small degree of the time, and cheesy and rollicking silly fun all of the time.

It’s also a show that never seems to know just what it wants to be. Most of the first half is ridiculously over-the-top, filled with goofy songs and hijinks as the denizens of Eggplant Land rally around the glorious Claudio (Beau Brians), as he triumphantly rescues the princess. Yet again. But several subplots—including Poinsettia’s sister Princess Fish, frustrated at always being left behind in the castle, emerging as a kick-ass martial-arts heroine determined to join the latest quest and Luis’ wrestling with always being the No. 2 player—attempt to inject some genuine drama or depth to the production. Then there’s our villain Bruiser, who bares his soul to a therapist and doesn’t understand why his deep love of a princess isn’t reciprocated since his constant abductions of her stem solely from his complete devotion.

The result is a show that runs on two tracks: one in which garishly costumed characters wielding simplistic arcade-like monsters either root for or attempt to kill the brothers as they jump, kick and batter their foes away, and one in which 8-bit characters grapple with existential crises. It makes for a fun, if ultimately unsatisfying, ride, one hampered by prerecorded music that occasionally dwarfs the actual singing and the sneaking suspicion that what you’re watching is a less fully fleshed-out show than a goofy idea brought to shaky, if bouncy, fun by two very creative people whose talents may have been put to better use.

However, in defense of the creators, there is one fascinating moment late in the first act, a Long, Dark Night of the Soul in which Claudio questions his place in the universe and whether any such thing as free will exists. It’s an existential moment of self-awareness (or the sense of a lack thereof) that channels the android angst of HBO’s Westworld and the more scientific postulations proffered by Neil Degrasse Tyson and his smarty-pants ilk who speculate that the universe, as we comprehend it, is really nothing more than an elaborate computer simulation designed by an omnipotent being (compared to us idiots, anyway).

But that’s about where the smart begins and ends in this show. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of chuckles to be had or several strong performances. Monika Pena is a scream as the piss-and-vinegar Princess Fish, whether rebelling against the conceits of a patriarchal video-game culture in which female characters are relegated to hapless bystanders or displaying her savage high kicks; Miguel Cardenas overcomes a ridiculous costume and character (a fire-breathing platypus) to deliver a rocking performance, particularly in the second act; and Andrew Puente’s Luis is a suitably recalcitrant support character thrust into the limelight.

While fans of the franchise and perhaps the first generation wave of home-console gaming might get a big kick out of this, it’s difficult to think this show will make much of an impression outside of some cultish fringe-festival type of deal. But the creators’ attempt at Disnify-ing the ending, with a predictably lightweight Hero’s Journey and a song featuring two quite different princesses finding common ground, works against that. So what we get is a show that nods at edgy and snarky, but also embraces pedestrian tropes. After seeing two previous musicals from the highly talented Pailet, including the raucous Triassic Parq: The Musical and the more conventional (sort of) Loch Ness, the advice from this quarter is to ditch the family-friendly stuff and go for the jugular.

Claudio Quest at Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Feb. 26. $31-$45.

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