The true story of a mass murderer may sound like anathema to the world of musical comedy, but Jack’s Back!, currently getting its world premiere at T. Schreiber Studio, aims to find a way to meld its source material into a lighthearted musical romp. Does it entirely succeed? No, but given that this resourceful studio’s mission has a degree of difficulty on par with finding the evasive Jack the Ripper, the company deserves plaudits for trying.
Created by musician-lyricist Tom Herman, librettist Elmer L. Kline (working with Leo Cardini and Herman), Jack takes place in the scary cockney underworld of the late nineteenth century. Against the real backdrop of Jack the Ripper’s murder spree (though theories persist, the actual criminal was never caught nor identified), a fictitious young man named Herbert Wingate (Casey Shane) sets out to apprehend the Ripper in order to win a government reward and uproot his family – including mother Martha (Arley Tapirian) and fiancée Jenny (Julie Udine) to a better life in America.
Herbert has good reason to want to nab the Ripper, as his mother is a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, and prostitutes seem to keep being the ones getting their throats slit. But his mother’s line of work also gives him the resources to get him, as he plans to disguise himself as a hooker, entice the Ripper, and then kill him.
Much of the show’s humor comes from Shane’s willingness to dress up in women’s frocks (Sherry Martinez designed the appropriately libertine period costumes, and while eventually the laughing gas on this one-note joke runs out, Shane proves himself quite a charismatic leading man, whether donning men’s or women’s attire. This is the first time I’m aware of catching the young actor, and if he is already this adept at carrying a show, I can’t wait to see what’s to come. Tapirian also makes the most of her naughty character, and Matthew Boyce makes mincemeat of a fun featured role as Detective Hugo Cummings. Lance Olds, as the Ripper himself, is afforded less fun material than one would think such a show would warrant, but acquits himself nicely. And the entire ensemble carries off Bronwen Carson’s fun choreography easily.
Director John Gould Rubin does an admirable job shepherding the play; his pacing and tone are the right fit for Jack. But at more than two hours, the show’s campy irreverence isn’t enough to compensate for an anemic story. I was hoping for either more in the way of direct parody (descending as this show does from ancestors like Oliver! and Sweeney Todd) or perhaps for the writers to cut into a deeper vein of satire. As it stands now, the plot feels both repetitive and lacking in any kind of suspense, as Herbert, Martha, and her merry band of prostitutes spin their wheels a la Scooby Doo. Scenes – and songs – often feel like filler, instead of humorously providing commentary on the classes or how a hero emerges through hysteria.
I love how T. Schreiber, a lauded home for dramatic works, has stretched in putting on a musical – and a new one at that. This company has shown they have the talent to house musicals. Next time, I hope they are able to launch an even stronger one.
T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 W. 26th St., 7th Floor. Thru June 24. $20. www.tschreiber.org.
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