Brothers Claudio and Luis may not dress like you've always known the Marios to dress, they may operate in the Eggplant rather than Mushroom Kingdom, and they may battle a giant, evil platypus named Bruiser, but make no mistake: Super Claudio Bros.is a musical about the life and times of Mario. But the real shock to me, reviewers and attendees alike? It's really good, even if you didn't grow up with a controller in your hand.
For the hundredth or thousandth time, brother Luis and Claudio have rescued Princess Tangerine and returned her to a grateful King Eggplant. As Claudio drinks in the glory and Luis looks on in envy, the princess is kidnapped yet again by the maniacal Bruiser. The two brothers set out to rescue her once more (with the semi-unwelcome aid of Tangerine's sister, Princess Fish) as Luis ponders how much longer he can stay in his brother's stout shadow.
Click to hear Claudio sing "Jump On" from Super Claudio Bros.
I saw the production last week as part of DC's Fringe Festival (where it was named the Best Musical) and was surprised to find something that was less a parody of a classic game world than a loving meditation on what those characters might actually be thinking should their unfortunate situation be made real.
Though it may not have the official license, the show still feels really right. The games may never touch on sibling rivalry or unbreakable cycle of catch and release that the Mushroom Kingdom's royal family seems to be locked in, but the angst makes perfect sense in context.
As co-writer Drew Fornarola put it to me: "We have these characters and we know basic, big picture things about them (who they are, what their big goals are, etc) but to create a piece of theater we have to dig down inside them and ask how they feel about what they're doing. What do they love and hate? What do they worry about? What happened that made them the way they are?"
What Fornarola and partner Marshall Pailet found was a surprising amount of heart and humor, though never of the mocking variety. In one notable example, Claudio is horrified to find a smug eggplant in a sack at the end of the first dungeon, even though Luis cautions him that it's neverthe princess in the first dungeon. After singing a song to that effect, the eggplant (understandably) expects a tip after being stuck pointlessly in a sack for three hours. It's funny in context, but uproarious if you've done your own share of rescuing non-princess toadstools.
You'd think that these sorts of in-jokes would only hit with the gaming crowd, but the show's been really well received by the local mainstream press. The Washington Post, for example, gushed: "Creators Pailet and Drew Fornarola have created a surprisingly polished, extraordinarily clever take on the Mario Brothers' world, drawing out every drop of angst the characters could feel."
If you're in the DC area, you have five chances to see the show this weekend. If you're not close enough, you can check out some songs from the show on the official site and join me in crossing white-gloved fingers, hoping that the show lives on and continues to evolve after this mounting.
Update: If you crave yet more media, here's AJ Shivley (not Sam Ludwig from the DC cast) performing "Player Number Two" in New York last year. He is, obviously, not in costume.