Ellery Weil reviews Eugenius!, a new musical that draws on 1980s nostalgia.
It’s safe to say that eighties nostalgia is having “a moment” and has been for quite some time. The music, the fashion, the films, the cultural icons—all have fallen back into style, whether ironically or sincerely. Stranger Things capitalized on this in television (as did Deutschland ’83, and the revivals of Full House, Dynasty, and Dallas,among others). So I’m sure you’ve been wondering: when is a stage musical going to make a transparent attempt to capitalize on this trend and make a quick buck? No, you weren’t wondering that? Well, neither was I, but unfortunately Eugenius! is here to answer the question anyway.
The plot is as follows: Eugene (Rob Houchen), a lonely “geek” in 1988 Ohio, writes comics about the adventures of the superhero Tough Man, and his sidekick, Super-Hot Lady, which he only discusses with his two close friends, the comically awkward Feris (Daniel Buckley), and Janey (Laura Baldwin), who is in love with him. One day, a Hollywood talent scout (Scott Page) comes to Eugene’s school, discovers his comics, and whisks him off to Hollywood to make a Tough Man movie. However, evil film executives, led by Lex (Alex Bourne) want to ruin his artistic vision, and unbeknownst to all, Tough Man and his nemesis, Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott), may not be as fictional as they seem.
If this sounds like a warmed-over combination of Grease, Revenge of the Nerds, and possibly Superbad, that’s because it is. For a “new” musical, Eugenius!does not boast a single original idea. The songs, with the exception of the insidiously catchy title number, are utterly forgettable. The jokes are tired, with one openly gay character played as an offensive stereotype, plenty of shopworn “dumb blonde” jokes, and references to Arnold Schwarzenegger and O. J. Simpson that would have felt dated in 1997. There are sex jokes made in the spirit of leering adolescence. There is a running gag involving fish and defecation that got old the first time it was used, and was then dragged out four more times. I was told that the Act Two opening number had been tweaked after being criticized as misogynistic—if what I saw was the updated version, I shudder to think what the original was like.
This is not to say the production is entirely phoned-in. The cast certainly puts tremendous energy into the production, and the tone is relentlessly cheerful. The songs are belted out with gusto, and the production’s visuals are a pleasing riot of lights and neon colors. Some of the actors, particularly Laura Baldwin as Janey, turn in as fine of performances as can be wrung from the material they were given.
However, even Baldwin cannot work miracles, and while Rob Houchen is blandly inoffensive as Eugene, Daniel Buckley’s Feris is mugging through every scene—whether this is an issue with Buckley’s acting choices, or the script is impossible to say. The show can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether Bourne’s Lex the producer or McDermott’s Evil Lord Hector is actually the villain, but of the two, at least Bourne understands what kind of character he’s playing, while McDermott’s Evil Lord Hector bounces from one trope to the next, seemingly at random.
Eugenius!is nakedly designed for the tourist trade, looking to appeal to the greatest possible number of people, if not actively delighting them, at least leaving them untroubled with their theatrical experience (unless, of course, they take offense at crude stereotyping). It may well find a home as a show for people visiting London who couldn’t get tickets to Les Miserablesor The Lion King or even School of Rock.I’m sure that would count as a success of sorts. But for a show with “genius” right there in the title, it’s an awfully dim bulb to be reaching towards.
Eugenius! is at The Other Place until the 20th October, 2018.
Feature photograph: Scott Rylander