A fun ‘Firebringer’ at Dominion Stage is both goofy and wise

A charming cast and a crack orchestra deliver a lighthearted tuner that sends up society and points to a better world.

If you wanted to reinvent the human race and retrofix civilization, you couldn’t do better than have a look at Firebringer, a goofy and shrewd musical comedy having its DC-area premiere in an enjoyable production at Dominion Stage. Set in an imagined prehistory when homo sapiens dwelled in caves and had not yet discovered fire, Firebringer is peopled with a charming cast accompanied by a crack orchestra who deliver a lighthearted tuner that not only sends up society but points to a better world.

Alex Bryce has designed a rough-hewn, in-the-round set with a gray ramped platform and gray boulders that might suit Fred and Wilma Rubble of Flintstones fame if they had musical theater chops. Once the ensemble enters and sings in stirring harmony “We Are People Now,” there begins a delightful tribal vibe of “Let’s put on a show.” And the fun fashion sense they display — by costume designer Larissa Norris, with hair and makeup by Rebecca Harris and Mario Font — might well trend one day on TikTok as prehistoric chic.

Cameron Powell as Grunt and Melanie Kurstin as Emberly; Melanie McGuin as Molag and Jessi Scott as Jemilla in ‘Firebringer.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Right away we learn that this once-upon-a-time clan is female-run. Before Molag the narrator (Melanie McGuin) takes off on a quest to find the edge of the world, she leaves Jemilla (Jessi Scott) in charge. Jemilla’s first official act is to get two males in conflict to chill — Chorn (Edward Nagel) and Smelly-Balls (Glenn Williams) — after which she is acclaimed as The Peacemaker. Later we witness female-female conflict when Jemilla’s rival Zazzalil (Lindsay Capuno) rises up and defies her. The male-male conflict has an emotional-expressivity resolution; the female-female conflict, a Sapphic one. And nowhere in this instructive dawn-of-civilization romp is there anything resembling male-female animosity.

Lindsay Capuno as Zazzalil; Glenn Williams as Smelly-Balls in ‘Firebringer.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Religious cultishness, however, comes in for a very funny ribbing. The clan’s deity is a duck, cared for by Ducker (Ryan Washington). And the clan believes along with Tiblyn (Sara Alipanah) that she must keep her arms held high because she holds up the sky. Eventually, both superstitions, silly but sacrosanct, get exposed, and the entertaining effect — for anyone exasperated with “alternate facts” — could not be more satisfying.

The work is also amusingly woke. For instance, Zazzalil ascends to leadership because she not only discovers fire (for lighting the night) but also invents the spear (for killing food). Both torches and spears come in handy for fending off a woolly mammoth and a saber-tooth tiger that appear in the form of gigantic puppets by Maria Littlefield. There comes a time, though, when these tribe folk realize that all their burning and slaughtering is precipitating climate change and species extinction.

Erin Kemp as Schwoopsie; Cameron Powell as Grunt and Melanie Kurstin as Emberly in ‘Firebringer.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Throughout, thanks to the inventiveness of director Michael Page and musical director Chad Rabago, there are visual and aural jokes that tickled the audience I was with. At one point, for instance, Molag starts coughing brusquely and Jemilla quickly puts on a facemask. At another, as Molag is trekking off to some tundra, we hear a sample from Frozen.

Lighting designers Jeff Auerbach and Kimberly Crago supply startling lightning strikes and sound designer Matt McNevin brings the thunderclaps. The actors are all mic’ed well for the round, and the balance between singers and musicians is good. Choreographer Colleen Prior conjures a time before dance was invented, and a few props by Helen Bard-Sobola  Alonzo Farley got laughs all on their own.

The harmonious and robust ensemble singing generally bettered the vocal sum of its parts, but there were several standout individual performances. I was taken with the playful chemistry between the outsider Grunt (Cameron Powell) and Emberly (Melanie Kurstin) in their two songs together: one in Act One (“Just a Taste”), a sweet scene of new-found fondness; and the other in Act Two (“Paint Me”), a lovely vignette about the invention of art. When Grunt paints a portrait of Emberly on a rock and shows it to her, she responds, “I like how you see me.” That line was among the moments when a well of wisdom flows in through the loopiest of situations.

Lindsay Capuno as Zazzalil and Nicole Keats Headd as Keeri; Sara Alipanah as Tiblyn in ‘Firebringer.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

Other individual performances to watch for: Glenn Williams brings to Smelly-Balls an amazing physical gift for gestural dance. Lindsey Capuno’s strong vocals as Zazzalil come with stunning conviction. And near the end, Edward Nagel as Chorn, who begins as a monosyllabic schlub, is revealed as an elegant silver-garbed extraterrestrial who sings an operatic 11 o’clock number magnificently.

The clever Firebringer book is by Matt Lang, Nick Lang, and Brian Holden; the often lush score and frequently poetic lyrics are by Meredith Stepien and Mark Swiderski. It’s a well-made musical with an appealing collegiate feel (not surprising — it’s a StarKid production), and Dominion Stage has served the show’s idealistic sensibility well.

The origin of civilization doesn’t get a do-over. It’s been done. But as a metaphorical work of theatrical insight into how humanity could have begun, Firebringer is certainly comparable to Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. And if you ask me: it’s better.

Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Firebringer plays Thursdays to Saturdays through August 20, 2022, presented by Dominion Stage performing at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Purchase tickets ($30) at the door or online.

The Firebringer program is online here.

COVID Safety: All audience members are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, or provide a negative COVID test from the preceding 72 hours. All audience members are required to be masked while they are in the performance venue. Dominion Stage’s complete Statement on COVID-19 Protocols is here.

Firebringer
Book by Matt Lang, Nick Lang & Brian Holden
Music & Lyrics by Meredith Stepien & Mark Swiderski

CAST
(in alphabetical order by character)
Chorn: Edward Nagel
Clark/Husband: Pat Mahoney
Ducker: Ryan Washington
Emberly: Melanie Kurstin
Grunt: Cameron Powell
Jemilla: Jessi Scott
Keeri: Keats Headd
Molag: Melanie McGuin
Schwoopsie: Erin Kemp
Smelly-Balls: Glenn Williams
Tiblyn: Sara Alipanah
Zazzalil: Lindsey Capuno

ORCHESTRA
Director/Keyboard: Chad Rabago
Guitar/Keyboard: Robbie Taylor
Bass: Chris Willett
Drums: Scott Luxenberg
Percussion: Merissa Driscoll

PRODUCTION TEAM
Executive Producer: Matthew Randall
Producer: Jason Damaso
Director: Michael Page
Music Director: Chad Rabago
Choreographer: Colleen Prior
Stage Manager: Lauren Markovich
Assistant Stage Manager: Vera Worri
Lighting Design: Jeff Auerbach and Kimberly Crago
Sound Design: Matt McNevin
Set and Painting Design: Alex Bryce
Properties Design: Helen Bard-Sobola
Properties Assistant: Alonzo Farley
Special Effects (Puppets): Littlefield
Master Carpenter: Alex Bryce
Set Construction and Painting: Alex Bryce, David Correia, Jonathan Grant, Mike Rudden, Rachel Wolkowitz
Costume Design: Larissa Norris
Hair and Makeup Design: Rebecca Harris and Mario Font

MUSICAL NUMBERS

ACT 1
Fire
We Are People Now
We Got Work To Do
What If
Welcome To The Stone Age
Just A Taste
The Night Belongs To Snarl
Into The Night
The Night Belongs To Us
ACT 2
Climate Change
Jemilla’s Lament
Paint Me
Ouch My Butt
Backfire
Together
Chorn
Finale (Make The Most Of It)

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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