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Portal 2: The Unauthorized Musical Review

Allow me to preface this with a very important statement: I'm of the belief that anyone who creates a new work and manages to produce it should absolutely be proud of themselves. That can be said for anyone anywhere who accomplishes this in an era where new theatre is a difficult sell, especially in Vancouver. That being said...


Portal is a bit of a mess.

I've never been more confused after a night of theatre than I was coming out of the Rio Theatre having just witnessed Portal 2: The Unauthorized Musical presented by Geekenders. The theatre world and the realm of 'geek culture' exist largely separate from one another but there is a small space on the Venn diagram where the two do meet.

If Portal 2: The Unauthorized Musical - and by extension Geekenders as a production company - is where those worlds intersect then there is a very, very long way to go before this subculture has anything to offer the theatre world or culture at large. Unfortunately, no one on the inside seems to care.

The book itself is cobbled together from dialogue from the source material (Portal 2 the video game, for those not privy), what sounds like excerpts from something found on fanfiction.net, and the ramblings of a middle-school improv team. These scenes are held loosely together by the show's 'score'.

I use that term loosely as these musical interludes amount to lyric parodies of existing Broadway or Disney tunes. Word of warning to those attempting lyric parody in the future: Forbidden Broadway barely gets away with it and they're pros. There are a handful of genuinely clever lyric swaps but it's ultimately a cringe-worthy affair. A cringe-worthy affair accompanied by a perfectly lovely three-piece band. Well done, band.

Portal (the game) was wise to eschew in-depth plot for a more mechanic-centric experience. Portal (the musical), however, fails to be particularly successful on either a story-centric or technical level. In Act 1 the plot stays faithful to the game for better or worse. Anyone unfamiliar with the source material may be confused as to what all of central character Chell's (Erin Mudry/Patrice Bowler) gesticulation means or what the characters of the Cores are even meant to represent. On the subject of the Cores: I hesitate to say there was a lick of comedic timing between the three of them.

I'm not a person who gets offended easily in the theatre but when I see a grown man portraying a character with a developmental deficiency that hobbles around the stage and is constantly berated and screamed at by everyone else on stage and is treated as the butt of a barrage of 'jokes' for 8 minutes I can't help but be slightly disgusted. Though severe ablest undertones are the least of worries when it comes to problematic underlying themes in this production. The fact that the two strongest relationships in the show revolve around ambitious men manipulating and ultimately betraying trusting women and then one of those women betraying the other woman left a bad taste in my mouth. But hey, there were video game jokes.

The leading trio of characters outside of Chell, Wheatley (Graeme Thompson), Cave (Davin Reid) and GLaDOS (Fairlith Harvey), are without a doubt the main focus. Wheatley has a nice stage presence and his West Country dialect is excellent at times. Cave has inarguably the best comedic timing of the bunch and his Black Mesa-themed version of The Music Man's 'Trouble' is the most clever and well-written number in the show. Harvey does an excellent job of distinguishing between the characters of GLaDOS and Caroline but has selected songs that are unfortunately just outside of her skill level. All three of these leads can be charming but that charisma oscillates as they all wrestle with songs that are frankly outside of their current abilities as performers. Flat notes and shaky attempts at harmonies are the norm.

Ultimately, the box office success of Portal 2 is frustrating. Coming out of the theatre, I heard nothing but praise from the rest of the audience. A close friend of mine expressed how fantastic he thought the show was.

So what is it? What exactly am I missing?

I have a feeling that's an entirely different discussion for a different time.

All I know is that there are truly amazing works of theatre happening in this city that can't pull in a fraction of the audience that this thoroughly underwhelming show had. There are really great ideas being choked by a disappointing and thematically problematic book, there are questionable song choices (though the idea of lyric parody is questionable to begin with), and there are performers who didn't have the stage experience to instill confidence in me as the audience. This work wouldn't be out of place at a post-secondary theatre program or even, with a bit more polish, the Fringe. However, if I'm going to be charged $25 to see this production at a venue like the Rio I have to hold it up to a higher standard than what I saw on stage.

If all you want is a handful of video game references, then by all means, go for it.