Henry Riggs successfully works his hobo mojo
In Hobo: The Musical, a bunch of comfortably-off young actors put on ripped jeans, dirty up their faces, and play people who are happy to be homeless. Luckily they do it with such energy, wit, and intentional rough-and-readiness that they avoid offense and make some valid points about society’s treatment of its outcasts.
Writers Henry Riggs, John Brennan, and Chris Gingrich have created a town called Justice that has uncomfortable parallels to our own city. There’s a central park called Marion Square where the bums hang out; a gung-ho police force who like to push around people who live an alternate lifestyle; and a mayor who wants to keep the streets clean and the ragabouts out of sight of the tourists.
When the show opens, the set dressings are as minimal as the heroes’ hygiene. Screwed-up newspaper is strewn across the stage; cardboard homeless-and-hungry signs hang on the wall; a trashcan, stool, and a couple of fold-up chairs are upstage. In the first scene, hobos Kenneth, Marvin, Pat, and Jerry perform like a modern-day version of a Greek chorus, dancing frenetically in a mock micro version of a Broadway musical number. They have to stay close together and their choreography has to be reasonably tight. Otherwise they’d fall off the tiny T-shaped stage at the East Bay Theatre.
As they sing of their shiftless lives, they come across as memorable individuals. Kenneth Bacon (Peyton Gray Robbins) wants a better life and has applied for a job. He likes to wax lyrical on life. Pat (Hailey Wist) speaks her mind and enjoys pointing out Kenneth’s faults. She likes to scratch her ass. Marvin (Erik Melvin) is dependant on a hobo called Nibbles, who supplies his group with enough cash to avoid starvation. He likes to scratch his balls. Jerry (Julian Summey) is crazy and gets all the biggest laughs. He likes to talk like a pirate.
Their leader Nibbles (Marie Barker) proves her expert begging skills by mooching a wallet from a gawky Middle Class Man (Christopher Drake). This is the kind of behavior that the Mayor of Justice cannot countenance, so she orders her goons to exterminate Nibbles and the other hapless hobos.
The mix of social commentary, cinematic melodrama, and self-conscious theatricality is just right. Amanda Lester’s cackling mayor wears black, wields a scepter with a skull on the end, and revels in her ruthlessness. In contrast, Kenneth’s earnest attitude helps make the show worth watching — his touching duet with Nibbles lends Hobo an emotional core. In another smart piece of scripting, the mayor’s goons also have distinct personalities.
All of the actors are committed to their grimy roles and they help build up a strong sense of fun, creating a warm atmosphere that sticks with the audience to the end. The middle of the musical is its weak spot — it drags for a while — but it’s the songs that really make this worth watching, especially “This is a Love Song” and “Kill all the Hobos.”
Henry Riggs and his friends are irreverent and confident enough to tap into a taboo subject and turn it into entertainment, simultaneously striking a solid awareness-raising blow for hobo sapiens. Prepare to be amused, get hooked on some catchy songs, and don’t forget to take some spare change.
HOBO the Musical • Piccolo Spoleto’s Piccolo Fringe • (1 hour) • $15 • May 27 at 8:30; June 8 and 9 at 7 p.m. • Buxton’s East Bay Theatre, 184 East Bay St. • 554-6060