Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard’s latest endeavor is the American premiere of Boojum! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll, an ambitious piece of Australian musical theater that made its debut on the Sydney stage in 1986.
Penned by twin brothers Martin and Peter Wesley-Smith, Boojum! takes its name from Lewis Carroll’s epic nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark”, which concludes with the line “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
Martin Wesley-Smith, for whom the works of Carroll have been a lifelong theme, uses this phrase and others from Carroll’s work as metaphors for the English author’s life, which appears to have been as eccentric as the imaginary worlds he created.
Our theatrical journey begins on an empty black stage, adorned with only a wooden platform and two large white drapes. On one are projected excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s stories. On the other, facts about the life of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, his literary doppelganger Carroll, and Carroll’s muse Alice Liddell.
Without introductory fanfare, we are joined in quick succession by our cast of eccentric Snark-hunters: Bellman (Michael Reyes), Banker (Stephen Rader), Billiard Marker (Kevin Bishop), Butcher (Sara Sevigny), Boots (Laura Deger), Barrister (Kevin Grubb), Beaver (Heather Townsend), and Baker (Alex Baliestrieri). What ensues is aptly described by COV as “part existential musical theater and part fantasy adventure story”.
Initially we are charmed by the eccentricity of Boojum’s characters, its catchy tunes and clever lyrics. Before long we realize that this funny fantasy world exists in the mind of a confused and tortured man for whom imagination is not only an escape, but also a social coping mechanism. Lewis Carroll’s reality exists in imagination, where he controls the action of its denizens like pieces on a chessboard. Dodgson’s reality is far more complicated.
Dodgson and his literary looking-glass image must coexist, much like the proverbial good and evil twins whose lives are impossibly and inextricably entwined. This relationship gives Boojum! its impetus, inspiring both the production’s most hilarious moments (most notably the “It Ain’t No Fun to be a Twin” duet between Rader and Bishop) and most of its pathos.
Much like Cabaret, Boojum’s absurd antics, dark humor and razzle-dazzle music-and-dance numbers are all the more impactful because of the sense of tragedy that laps at the edges of the story.
All of the details are here: eye-popping costumes, snappy choreography, perfectly timed delivery, wonderful music. The vocal talents of the leading roles are impressive: in addition to Reyes, whose fine comic acting gives Boojum! its backbone; Baliestrieri and Townshend are also in fine voice.
They are joined later in the first act by Jeremy Trager, whose portrayal of Dodgson’s alter-ego Lewis Carroll is superb. (His duet with Baliestrieri, “Knight’s Gambit”, is another musical highlight.) Marielle de Rocca-Serra makes a comely Alice, although her vocal stamina seemed to falter toward the middle of Act Two.
And even though the a cappella group numbers still need some polishing, this fine group of actors accompanied by a single piano really make Boojum! shine. We can’t help but imagine what they could do with a Broadway sized theater and full orchestra. If the theater gods are smiling, they will certainly get the chance to show us.
3 ½ STARS