The American musical these days seems to be full of cartoon characters, which isn’t always a good thing, but in “Scotland PA”, based on the 2001 indie film, cartoon is celebrated to joyous effect. That’s not only good but astonishing given that the plot is a re-telling, albeit broadly, of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth. Michael Mitnick’s book is amusing enough and Adam Gwon’s music, rooted in 1970’s pop, and lyrics are okay, too, but what makes “Scotland PA” charmingly winning in its own peculiar way is the direction of Broadway veteran Lonny Price (one of the original cast of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”), who doesn’t miss a trick in the tried and true musical comedy play book. .
The setting is working- class, small town, rural Pennsylvania in 1975; Nixon had resigned, the Vietnam War had ended. Mac McBeth (played by a distinctly un-self conscious Ryan McCartan) and his wife Pat (a perky Taylor Iman Jones), married since their late teens, are stuck in dead-end jobs at Duncan’s, a hamburger joint, and live in a trailer park. Mac has loads of entrepreneurial ideas about “fast food” but owner Duncan (as in King Duncan in the Bard’s version), his arrogant boss, derides them. Mac is rather content but his wife Pat (his Lady Macbeth) is frustrated with their lot, blames Duncan and wants a better life.
A trio called the Stoners, here hippies high on marijuana, appear to Mac, and like, the Bard’s witches, prophesize Mac’s fate, putting notions of power in his head. Fleshing out the core characters from the original Shakespeare tragedy are Malcolm (Will Meyers), Duncan’s high-school age son, who hates his father (and has a secret) and Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson), Mac’s co-worker and friend, here a simple-minded but likable loser (hardly noble) . A quirky ensemble of eight others - restaurant co-workers - round out the cast.
Act one lays down a lot of character exposition, with many in-one-ear-out-the-other tunes; the most memorable is a duet called “Outta Here” that crystallizes Pat’s (Lady McBeth’s) resolve to avenge Duncan no matter what the cost. Indeed, the McBeth’s do Duncan in, they take ownership and in an amazing split second set change the dinky, mom-and pop hamburger joint transforms into McBeth’s (sounds like Mcdonald’s) replete with all the red-and-gold, sleek luster of America’s most famous restaurant chain. Success goes to Mac’s head; Pat is finally rich. But, Peg McDuff (Megan Lawrence), a vegetarian police inspector, arrives investigating Duncan’s death.
After intermission, “Scotland PA” turns the old Broadway adage that the second act is weaker than the first act upside down; Mr. Price goes for the outlandishness of it all and Mr. Mitnik’s comedy in his book loosens up. The 70s-style score - played by an off-stage five-piece band - seems more apt, too.
Ms. Lawrence kickstarts Act Two with “Peg McDuff Is on the Case” where the feisty detective makes clear she will leave no stone unturned (and at the same time observe her vegetarianism). The young Mr. Meyer unveils a real surprise about Malcolm in a disarming solo called “Why I Play Football”. (Hint - it has nothing to do with football.) Director Price shamelessly and gleefully borrows from musicals with grotesque similarities as “The Little Shop of Horrors” (here, its’ a kitchen fryolator that can kill) and “Sweeney Todd” (Mac holds his McBeth burger as high in upstretched arm as Sweeny did his razor).
Price has fun, too, with “out damn spot”; here it’s Pat’s burned hand (guess from what?) that obsesses her and drives her to her tragic, but hilariously ghoulish, doom. But before she and Mac see their fate, they share a bittersweet ode of unending devotion, even in crime, called “Clairvoyant”, the best song of the show. There’s tragedy all around but it’s a hoot. And in typical Broadway musical tradition, director Price brings it all together in a rousing musical coda that celebrates anything but the American hamburger.
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