The New Generation of Musical Superheroes: ‘Eugenius!’

Entering the auditorium of The Other Palace, you descend the stairs accompanied by Soft Cell, Phil Oakley and some other delightfully ‘retro’ sounds. You sit down facing a 3-tiered stage filled with slanted lines and curved stairs, reminiscent of a crashed spaceship. Bright purple lights shine out towards you and streams of fairy lights coat the ceiling space above. As you look closer you see the stage (designed by Hannah Wolfe) is speckled with UV paint and is set against a galactic painted backdrop. You have entered a new space, a new dimension, fully immersed.

Eugenious! follows young self-proclaimed geek Eugene, “whose nightly dreams of a distant world of heroes and villains” lead him on an adventure to Hollywood where he meets many interesting characters, both human and superhuman. It is a classic superhero tale filtered through a self-aware, quick-witted script by Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins. All of the expected tropes are embraced in narrative and form: the young underdog gets a break, true love is professed, villains are overthrown, and costumes are changed in the blink of an eye. Adams addresses this, acknowledging that the show is meant to “fulfill those expectations and enjoy the reasons they are expectations in the first place.” Eugenious! revels in clichés, nostalgia, and presumption while sporting a wonderfully relentless pace. Every performer bursts with comedic instincts and this strong ensemble elevate the piece to a higher place, finding its own power within.

The opening number sets the tone, a self-aware humour that is the true core of the show. This humor is very specific, well focused, and underpins every moment in a way that still allows for variety and connection. Liam Forde (who plays Eugene) has spoken about this tone being of utmost importance to the director and cast. The tone is also reminiscent of the 80s building on the nostalgia of movies, music, and the early comic book heroes. It this way it is similar to the Netflix hit, Stranger Things which references a specific stylistic era in pop culture and rather than ‘sending it up’ or parodying it, situates itself within this stylistic era–using it as a blueprint for structure, character and ultimately, humour. This is the main strength Eugenious!  It features a strong conceptual framework that is clearly defined and woven through all elements of set, costume, music, choreography and performance.  All of these elements help the piece cleverly navigate two parallel realities: the pre-CGI world of 1980s Hollywood movies, flying saucers on strings, leotards and legwarmers actuality, and Eugene’s magical world of superheroes and villains. Both work simultaneously, two dimensions within one reality.

This reference and revitalisation of features from the past is not restricted to media and performance—sales of record players are on the rise, fashion is recycling through retro trends, and Eugenious! could be seen an artifact of this ideal in a slightly different framing. Rather than just being influenced by the past, the piece is a fully immersive time capsule to the height of the 80s, disconnected from the current world. A journey like this can often be a needed escape and is one of the great strengths of theatre, especially musical theatre.

Discussing this with writer Ben Adams (music producer and lead singer of boy band A1) he touched on this idea. He stated it was a desire of his to create this world of fun, enjoyment and energy, and in “the social and political situation of today I think sometimes that is what is needed”.  The whole show is directed towards creating a space of unique ‘magic’ for that time, through the production design, script, music, and choreography. It builds to a final number that had some people instantly up on their feet, dancing and singing in the rows. This in itself is art, power, and a form of cultural revolution.

In terms of the physicality of the show, choreographer Aaron Renfree does not shy away from bold, whole body stances and moves which connote comic book strips and 1980s dance routines. The choreography also provides another layer of comedy with a Bob Fosse style routine and ‘the dance of the fish people’. There is a group of around six who multirole constantly and make up the majority of the dance ensemble (Chloe Chambers, Frances Dee, Luke Dowling, Jacob Fisher, Rosie Heath, Alex Tranter) although all the cast are involved in a routine at some point in the show. In various discussions both Renfree and director Ian Talbot mentioned that the group was supposed to be larger, but also both said they were happy with the final number and wouldn’t change it. Talbot added that he feels it’s “one of the shows greatest strengths” and that rings true as a viewer. The fact that a fairly small cast plays so many roles adds to the overall style and also heightens the show.

All the performers give strong, sustained performances from the start to the end, never letting the pace or energy drop. As Eugene, Liam Ford delivers light and darker moments with clarity and depth whilst remaining in the heightened state he mentioned in the discussion. He has a beautifully clear and emotive voice that rings out in all the numbers. Best friends Janey and Feris, Laura Baldwin and Daniel Duckley both deliver stand out moments. Baldwin performs an impressive female power ballad complete with a wind machine, and Duckley shows impressive rap stylings within the first 15 minutes of the show. The performers bring a real skill and the sense of ensemble is palpable to the audience. You can feel the connections between every person on the stage as they adapt to each other, negotiating a fairly small space for the number of people and working together to deliver a real force. In regards to the dances, Aaron Renfree noted that skill of movement happened to be naturally present in the ensemble.

After witnessing the group working in rehearsals and discussing the show with the cast and crew, what was apparent was an incredible love for the piece itself. They all appeared so passionate and committed to meeting the physical and emotional demands of the show with abundant energy. This may be due to the specific process of this show. In June 2016, there was one concert performance at the London Palladium. It’s a truly refreshing and healthy attitude toward the creation of theatre: making the research and development stage visible and overt. This is the very essence of the venue, The Other Palace, the mission of which is the “nurturing new musical theatre through […] fully produced shows and development initiative”, hosting pitch days, open mic nights and providing workshop and performance space.

Eugenious! starts as a fast-paced, ‘laugh a minute’ musical full of neon legwarmers, bodysuits, and cartoon heroes, and indeed it is. But when framed through its connection to cultural history, the space outside the theatre, and its development process, it speaks to many other elements and gains a whole new meaning and power. It undergoes an identity transformation all its own.

Eugenious! is on at The Other Place until March 3rd. You can listen to the soundtrack on Spotify. Find details here