MacGyver, the American secret agent from the hit eponymous mid-80s TV show, could solve problems/get out of dangerous situations using nothing but a paperclip and tape. But it’s child’s play compared to wondrous feats MacGyver the Musical succeeds at Stages in this first production.
And by wonderful, we mean fun. Pure fun. Entertaining in a way that serves up nostalgia, interactive theater, universal comedy, a rocking live band, classic musical numbers, killer performances, clever use of video projection, and plot with just enough upside up his sleeve to keep us interested despite the predictable outcome.
Equally fun is learning who MacGyver is playing, because it changes every production.
The Musical (book by Kate Chavez, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Robin Ward Holloway and creator of the television series, MacGyver, Lee David Zlotoff. Music and lyrics by Peter Lurye) begins in the lobby of the theater where four spectators have volunteered to audition for the lead role.
Put to the test of their acting, singing and dancing beats by McQ (Yasir Ali Muhammad) who would later introduce the chosen performer throughout the production, we declare a winner, then step into the theater can’t wait to see how our newest actor does.
No doubt what happens behind the scenes from there is a mad rush to explain things to newbie MacGyver (in this production, a middle-aged man with Clint Eastwood vibes) and outfit him with the necessary technical equipment.
The 20 or so minutes we’ve been waiting for pass pretty quickly thanks to 80s rock music, eye-catching graffiti-covered walls enveloping the theater, and a video stream showing snippets of classic 80s moments. Everything from MTV videos to Dirty Dancing to the Golden Girls and Peter Jennings delivering the news. For this Gen X reviewer, it was basically a teenage memory.
Once the musical opens, however, the creators smartly drop the reminiscence revival and give us a show that anyone, even MacGyver ignoramuses, can enjoy.
The story is simple. The year is 1989 and MacGyver is sent to East Berlin to thwart a communist overthrow of the rest of Germany. Excellent narrative choice, by the way, nothing non-PC to make the Stassi the villains. Once there, MacGyver meets a double contact agent Johann (Mark Ivy) and his estranged punk singer sister Ingrid (Hannah Clarke Levine).
Both attempt in their own way to end Communist rule, Johann by betraying East Berlin leader Heimlich (Jay Aubrey Jones) and his second-in-command Hilde (Carolyn Johnson). Ingrid, well, by being punk with her band Die Hamburgers (Keivon Akbari, Mike Dorsey and Katrien Van Riel).
MacGyver Being MacGyver uses his non-violent daily ingenious tool-based methods (including the best/funniest use of a zip line) to help the siblings undo Heimlich’s nefarious plot and reunite in the dark. family harmony.
If that sounds a little corny, it is. It’s fate. But while the writers here channel the serious ’80s where dripping irony and winky comedy hadn’t yet found their way into the zeitgeist, they inject enough self-awareness and audience awareness into the series to let some of the steam through.
So back to our layman MacGuyver. While it’s certainly not the first show to cast an audience member in a role, what this production succeeds in is the two methods of framing the role. First of all, while it might seem like MacGyver has the starring role, here it’s more of a device that can be used when needed but not overtaxed, reducing the need for stellar performance .
The way MacGyver interacts with the show is even smarter. Using graceful physical wrangling and cue cards with never more than one line at a time, McQ escorts, directs and invites the performer for the entire production, making sure lines are read, that the notes are respected and that the nerves and the ego are mastered. .
Not to say that the role is robotic. Far from there. There’s plenty of room for MacGyver to show some personality (they weren’t asked to sing and dance in the audition for nothing) but not enough wiggle room to wreck the show.
We then focus primarily on the rest of the show’s formidable performers, delivering no less than 18 musical numbers. Yes, that’s a few songs too many and yes, three hours between the audition and the final act is way too long for a show like this.
Also, as is the problem with musicals everywhere these days, it seems that several of the numbers are drowned out by overly loud musical accompaniment. Frankly not helped in this case by the three-sided stage, which often results in singing performers turning their backs on us for long stretches.
But thanks to director Kenn McLaughlin who pulled all the energy, comedy and feeling out of this exuberant musical, we allow the extra, indecipherable moments without too much fuss.
Lurye’s numbers (accompanied by a live band) range from an approximation of composed poppy punk to standard ballads and humorous numbers.
Most notably of the latter is, I will take care of you, sung to great comic effect by Russian hustler/secret seller, Boris (Mike Dorsey). Son, you do something for me and I’ll pay you back, the lyrics are pretty funny, but made juicier by the character’s affirmation line, you scratch my back and then I’ll scratch my back.
Can we do this also provides the laughs as Hilde (Johnson here, and throughout the show, serving up a superlative comedic performance) and her colleague Messerschmidt (Brandon Grimes) debate withholding crucial information from Heimlich in a kind of Stassi-esque tango.
In the most emotional moment of the series, Ingrid fantasizes about what life could have been and will be like after the fall of the wall in On another side. It’s a beautiful ballad that Lurye gives us, made all the more stunning by Levine’s precisely emotive vocals.
Luckily, there are no big dance numbers in the show. After all, no one needed to see Stassi agents. Instead, McLaughlin (also credited with directing the show) spices up just enough dance moves in the production to give it the full musical feel.
For the visual feel of punks and Stassi, we have costume designer Kristina Ortiz Miller to thank for ensuring that the Communists are militarily starched and the Rebels are incredibly prickly and raccoon-eyed.
It should be noted that MacGyver the Musical was supposed to premiere just as the pandemic shut down productions as a whole. Timing is a funny thing, sure, but who knew that when Stages would finally be ready to launch a show about the threat of a violent communist takeover, it would coincide with real-world events?
In time, other playwrights will no doubt tackle the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, helping us make sense of it all.
Meanwhile and unexpectedly, MacGuyver the Musical now serves as both a gleefully fun theatrical experience and wishful thinking. If only life imitated art much more in this case
MacGuyver The Musical continues through March 4 at Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, visit stageshouston.com or call 713-527-0123. $87-25.