Marshall Pailet Takes on Loch Ness at Chance Theater

If it were possible to speculate in the stock of a creative person, this chump would cobble together whatever few ducats he had lying around and invest them in Marshall Pailet. The writer and director of the musical Loch Ness, currently making its world premiere on the boards of the Chance Theater, has already made noise. His Triassic Parq, a sexed-up send-up of some gender-confused dinosaurs, won the 2010 NYC Fringe Award for Best Musical, and his direction of it in 2013 at the Chance earned him an Ovation Award.

But with Loch Ness, the 27-year-old Pailet delivers a piece that signals his future may not lie in quirky, off-beat shows that draw critical praise (like Who's Your Baghdaddy?, another past effort), but rather in mainstream commercial success. And quibble all you want about art versus commerce, but when someone with such obvious talent as this guy actually makes money at what he does? Well, let's be honest: The only people who care about that divide are the ones not doing any commerce through their art.

Whether Loch Ness is the show that launches Pailet into non-fringe territory is anyone's guess. It's still very early in its development, and there are a few wrinkles in the book and score that need to be ironed out. But what is here is already very good. It's a smart, funny musical with a genuine heart and just enough goofiness to offset any pathos in its very sincere examination of a teenage daughter dealing with the loss of her mother—as well as meeting a real-life Nessie, the fabled creature rumored to exist in the murky depths of Scotland's Loch Ness.

And yes, there is a Nessie in this show. Puppets are moved by a handful of actors, and it's given a human face and voice through Katie Brown. It's a simple but effective way to stage a character such as this in a smaller setting, but let Julie Taymor get a hold of this show with a few million to throw around, and you could imagine something similar to Peter Jackson's Smaug onstage.

Nessie is the object of the central thrust of the show—a search by Dr. Thomas Westerbrook (a layered Jackson Tobiska) to find her in an effort to replenish his dwindling bank account, as well as repair the relationship with his daughter, Haley. But Nessie is also the subject, as the search for father to find her and daughter to save her forces them both into making the arduous decision to move on from a shared tragedy.

Along the way, there's a cast of off-beat characters to provide comic relief and the necessary champions, villains and spear carriers every musical needs. Pailet, who also directs the show that he co-wrote with his father, A.D. Penedo, benefits from a typically solid Chance ensemble. Everyone delivers strong performances, but special mention goes to longtime Chance stalwart Alex Bueno as the ship's captain and Keaton Williams as a hapless French researcher.

One issue is that the show doesn't seem wholly comfortable in deciding what it is: a grown-up musical about overcoming loss and moving on with one's life, or one geared toward young adults dealing with issues of angst and self-empowerment. It's possible it can inhabit both worlds, but at the moment, its oscillation between those two feels a touch wobbly.

That sense of erraticness is embodied most in the main character. Haley (a wonderfully talented Julia Cassandra Smith) seems trapped between teen petulance and adult issues, and while her connection with Nessie is valid and heartwarming, there doesn't seem to be enough in her character as written to buy into her eventual transformation, something kind of important in any coming-of-age tale. (That lack of meat to the characters isn't restricted to Haley. Nessie, in particular, seems a bit deer-in-the-headlights for an ancient creature that has managed to evade human detection for so long.)

The show also ends a bit abruptly. While it wraps in tender, heartstring-pulling fashion, it seems to come too quickly. Hate to say it because generally with musicals I'm wishing there were fewer songs (read: most of them), but the show seems to call out for another big number to send the audience out on a higher note.

But any musical takes time to coalesce, and there will be time to tweak, massage, refine and address whatever issues the two-hour show may have. Even if Pailet torpedoes Loch Ness, it's still a solid achievement, a well-crafted, engaging piece that absolutely speaks of enormous talent and creativity. Now, excuse me while I call my theatrical inside trader, a certain Mr. Maxwell Bialystock. . . .

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