“Heaven is so boring.” That’s the complaint of a modern-day version of Dante Alighieri in Inferno the Musical, a look at the vagaries of life and love and the inevitability of fate.
Written and produced by David Michael, a veteran of the DC music scene, this song-filled saga begins with Dante himself. Played with jocular authority by Bruce Falk, the Italian poet—and author of The Divine Comedy—is taking a respite from on high by visiting Minos, guardian of the Gates of Hell, who is played by the irrepressible Mattie Cohan.
Contemplating the crowded conditions in Hell, Dante proposes plucking someone from Limbo—the place for those who’ve committed the lesser sins—for a shot at heaven.
Minos doubts that a second chance will do any good. But she’s willing to bet on the outcome. They select the Kid, a sweet-faced young man who has recently drowned himself over the loss of love, to test the premise. And so the play within a play unfolds.
The Kid, who is the leading man in this tale of love and loss, is beautifully portrayed by Morgan DeHart, combining innocence and lechery, joy and contrition in the role. He and Polly, the extraordinary Justine Summers, fall in love on a date that lasts through the morning.
When love sours, the Kid turns to Polly’s alter ego, Madam Diavola. Also played by Summers, the salaciously-attired Madam lures the young innocent into her lair—a sex club that happens to be named Providence—with a song called “Come In From the Cold.” It’s a knockout number, performed by Summers with a hookers’ ensemble.
Although Polly and the Kid are the classic star-crossed lovers of the musical stage, there are many other fine performances in this production.
Josephine Kukwa Christian is splendid in her role as Polly’s best friend, while Shai Wolf manages to be both spunky and strong as the hooker who hooks the Kid. (“It’s the witching hour, keep your power,” she sings.) David Weinraub is the prurient priest who gets his kicks by listening to confessions.
Evan Kohnstam is hilarious as a canine tenor, singing “Domestic Dog” on all fours. Kohnstam, who is the youngest member of the cast, is a junior at Seton Hall University.
Inferno is full of sight gags. One of my favorites is when Dante, who is very tall, and Minos, who is tiny, settle into their seats on the otherwise bare stage. Minos is deliciously funny as she struggles to climb onto a throne so large that her legs are left dangling above the floor.
The sets, such as they are, consist of portable banners that suggest neon signs and a confessional screen, which serves as another comic visual.
Similarly, the costumes are hilarious. Tiffany de Lisio created the concepts, which include gray frocks for those in Limbo, black T-shirts for those in Hell, and a thoroughly devilish red outfit for Minos. Dante wears a heavenly white coat, though he looks more like a scientist than a poet, suggesting that, perhaps in this case, science and poetry are interchangeable.
Zohar Rom is the professional director—now working in film—who has put this together. Josephine Kukwa Christian doubles as lead choreographer, with additional choreography by Marcus Washington and Mary Shelton, and Elliot Lanes is the stage manager.
This production of Inferno is a lovely performance of an ambitious but occasionally puzzling play. It has many of the elements of light opera, including the fact that the lyrics are sometimes stronger than the music. Interestingly, some of the best singers in the cast are Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan regulars, which may explain the strength and clarity of their voices.
Everyone in this enormously talented cast is a veteran of community theater. As such, this world premiere—and “best of Fringe” winner—is a reminder of the strength and talent of the nonprofessional stage in DC.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including one very brief intermission.