Fringe 2019 – Tabletop: The Musical is Tribute to Gamers
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was submitted by guest writer Matthew Kennedy.
My general approach to the Hollywood Fringe Festival is probably best summarized as: “Go in with low expectations, but be open to pleasant surprises.” With so many offbeat or experimental productions being showcased, each show I attend is a roll of the dice. Will it be a bizarre yet delightful gem? An interesting but not quite brilliant take on a familiar topic? Or a cool concept that got badly mangled by an uninspired writer/director and an under-rehearsed cast?
I’ll admit I was prepared for the latter when I sat down at The Arena Stage for Tabletop: The Musical. Adding to my hesitation were the technical difficulties that delayed the start – nobody’s fault, but it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Additionally, its two-and-a-half-hour run time had me nervous before I even stepped through the doors. But it turns out that Tabletop is actually pretty damned good. Not perfect, but definitely one of the better shows I’ve seen this Fringe. Director/Producer Jared Pixler has put together a charming and mostly well-executed tale of a group of friends united by their love of Dungeons and Dragons. Tabletop features some truly stellar performances, clever shifts between portraying events around the table and inside the fictional world of Vaelrun, and an ultimately heartwarming story in which each of the main characters has their opportunity to grow and shine in the spotlight.
Tabletop: The Musical’s story takes place primarily in an unnamed game store run by Karen (Katie Lynn Maple), who inherited it from her grandfather. Each of the show’s acts follows a similar basic structure: A personal issue with one of the players sets the tone for the night’s Vaelrun session. The session itself involves the group shifting between playing around the table and choreographed sequences that take us inside their imaginations (and into Vaelrun), followed by a postlude after the session during which the players have to deal with their real-world issues, then finally a phone call from Karen to an unidentified recipient giving her take on the day’s events. It gives the performance an episodic feel, which could easily get repetitive but mostly works here. Each session brings new challenges as the characters work through their own personal struggles while moving forward through the Vaelrun campaign’s plot, with musical numbers peppered throughout that are often quite impressive. As with any DnD group, personal issues spill over into the game, but ultimately the story is an optimistic one. When all is said and done, the players and their in-game characters alike achieve meaningful victories (though not without cost).
The players who are central to the story will likely be familiar to those who’ve played tabletop RPGs. There’s hyper-enthusiastic dungeon master Eric (Jason Pollack); love-struck Luke (Loic Suberville), who plays the party’s noble paladin; codependent Valerie (Natalie Swanner), Luke’s unrequited love interest, who plays a confident and independent ranger; Ken, the party’s clever mystic, who is far less at home in the real world than in Vaelrun; Eric’s brash younger sister Valerie, whose badass fighter cleaves through in-game foes with ease; and finally Valerie’s car salesman boyfriend Brandon (Adam Jacobson), a DnD newbie brought in to fill the vacancy left by Eric’s very pregnant wife. Supporting characters include said wife Emily (Laura Zenoni), mighty wizard Korrow (Justin Huff), bard/quest-giver Lyla (Deanna Carolyn Bakker), and the town mayor (Mitchell Mack), along with a talented ensemble that shifts between fellow gamers, enemies to be slain, and bystanders as needed. And punctuating all of this is Karen’s snarky quips and banter, though as with the other main cast, there’s more than one layer to her personality and motivations.
On the whole, Tabletop is well-made and well-performed. In particular, I think Swanner deserves special mention for her standout vocals, and the duets between her and Suberville are among the show’s more powerful numbers. But choreographer James Matthew Johnson deserves a shout-out as well; both for the show’s fight scenes and ensemble numbers, as well as his own cameo in the climax. In the latter, his inhuman contortions really sell his character as a malevolent, otherworldly threat, and add a lot to the scene. Pixler and Johnson also ensure that the show makes full use of the relatively expansive stage; even though the game table remains off to stage left, there’s almost always something happening in the center and at stage right. Set dressing and props are used relatively sparingly, which makes sense given the frequent shifts between the game store and Vaelrun, but they manage to strike a fair balance and give both worlds the character they need.
However, there are some issues that take away from the experience. Most of these come down to sound balance and acoustics. In some cases, the musical accompaniment is much too loud, especially during solo numbers; other times, some of the performers are unable to project enough to have their voice fill the theater. Even when I was sitting front row center, there were several points during which one of the cast had to face toward stage right or left and I could not hear a word they were singing. Part of that probably comes down to the venue; The Arena Stage is bigger than most Fringe spaces, and the acoustics are less forgiving. But ultimately the responsibility lies with the cast and crew to adapt, and they were not always able to do so. Finally, there was one important solo number in which the performer struggled to hit a number of their notes, distracting from what was a key moment for their character.
Despite these issues, Tabletop: The Musical is a rich, mostly even-handed portrayal that fans of tabletop gaming will almost certainly appreciate. DnD veterans in particular will catch a number of references and tropes that give the impression it was written by folks who’ve filled out their share of character sheets. But it is also accessible to those who’ve never seen a die with more than six sides, let alone felt the thrill of a natural twenty or the despair of rolling a one. A lot of that comes down to the writing. Rather than letting itself get bogged down by trying to be overly realistic in its portrayal of the myriad (and often fiddly) rules DnD features, Tabletop instead focuses on capturing them in spirit while putting the bulk of its emphasis on the storytelling. If you’ve ever wondered why people sit around a table, roll funny dice, and pretend to be an elven wizard or dwarven cleric for hours on end, Tabletop: The Musical gives a pretty good answer.