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'Eugenius!' review — no superhero could save this muddled musical

Read our two-star review of the superhero musical Eugenius!, currently running at the Turbine Theatre through 28 May. Get Eugenius! tickets on London Theatre.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It would be disingenuous of me to make undue claims on behalf of Eugenius!, the long-aborning geek-empowerment musical first seen in concert in 2016 and then for two separate runs at The Other Palace in 2018.

The collaboration between Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins strikes once again in a new Turbine Theatre production directed by Hannah Chissick that suggests a fair degree of remedial attention still needed, even after all these years.

It’s not just the details that niggle — a CEO joke that doesn’t work at all given that the rewrite on offer here (“capable of everything”) has the acronym COE. Or a “surely” one-liner that was tired well before this musical’s creatives were born.

The far larger problem is a muddied and muddled thesis about finding your own inner Tough Man, which is the journey allotted to the musical’s desperately earnest high schooler, Eugene (Elliott Evans, in winning form). Does that mean we should all tap into whatever nascent Donald Trump is somewhere within us — Trump being just one of an endless sequence of notables name-checked along the way? (Let’s hope not.)

A passing allusion to “Trump fraud” allows for more reality than this material can bear. Among the better shout-outs is a truly clever one in the direction of Patti LuPone amidst a show that finds room within its comic book cavalcade to make an additional nod toward a revival of Gypsy itself. Conversely, a Hello, Dolly! quip is easily binned.

Our hero is Evans’s sweet-faced, clarion-voiced Ohioan, Eugene, whose mum has died and whose kindly father is struggling to speak his son’s pop culture vernacular. Dad makes mention of Naked Weapon, not Naked Gun, and clearly wants the best for this superhero-besotted teen. The two share an extended second-act scene whose unearned sentimentality is off the charts, though dad might do well to survey the clever assemblage of comics that line the entrance to the auditorium.

It’s 1988, and Eugene is one of a trio of besties that includes the adoring Janey (Jaina Brock-Patel) and a horndog, Feris, who views the entire world through the lens of film. It’s not the hard-working James Hameed’s fault that this bespectacled wise-ass is entirely obnoxious, whether quoting Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or not. (And, yes, he is the one given the inevitable fart joke.)

You recoil from numbers like “The No Pants Dance” in which Feris puts the moves on Carrie (Maddison Firth), an actress who doesn’t know the meaning of the word pizzazz but has Chuck Norris for an acting coach.

Janey, for her part, is amplified as if to do direct battle with the nearby trains whose rattle can be heard during the show. It’s not surprising that she and Eugene get a climactic duet reminiscent of “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman — one of the few period-appropriate movies not named during a show whose reach extends to the heady likes of Rocky IV.

Eugene, to his delight and surprise, lands himself a Hollywood gig presided over by a distaff Lex Hogan (Lara Denning) — her character’s first name itself a supervillain tip-off. Denning shouts all her lines in accordance with the exaggerated acting throughout and is quick to revile a classical English actor in her midst: cue snark at the expense of Alec Guinness in Star Wars.

Eugenius! is so busy casting a pan-cultural net that it doesn’t begin to achieve an identity of its own, beyond making a fetish of mock-inanity that itself tilts toward the inane. Musicals thrive on self-realisation – from Wicked through to The Great British Bake Off Musical and countless others, as well, and there’s a touching story here to be told about allowing fantasy to fuel someone’s actual life.

Instead, Eugenius! settles for low-level pastiche, enlivened in this instance by Andrew Exeter's witty design that resembles a parade of Roy Lichtenstein canvases come to life, and Nick Pinchbeck’s musical direction, which makes the band sound far bigger than a two-person enterprise.

The cast exist at the behest of the prevailing OTT approach, not least a glowering Joseph Beach as Evil Lord Hector, who quotes from Les Misérables and is the show’s nearest equivalent to a panto villain. Better off is Rhys Taylor, who brings deft timing to the camp Theo Schlong — to give the full name of Lex’s florid and hyper-attentive sidekick.

An ace Dom Andersen does terrific triple duty as the beneficent dad, bad-ass Tough Man and a hapless German called Gerhard who can’t make his V’s into a W. In context, that’s the least of this show’s problems.

Eugenius! is at the Turbine Theatre through 28 May. Book Eugenius! tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Cast of Eugenius - Eugenius The Musical (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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