Published in The Ticker
Playwright Noah Rauchwerk’s passion project PITS: The Unauthorized Holes Musical drew in a crowd of millennials to the Peoples Improv Theatre for an evening performance that left many shocked at the hilarious renditions of beloved Holes characters.
The PIT is located on 24th Street and Lexington Avenue and hosts a variety of improvisation classes, as well as an in-house bar. The musical follows the life of protagonist Danley Yelnad, the parody version of the cursed Stanley Yelnats, who winds up in a juvenile detention camp for a crime that he did not commit. At the camp, boys dig holes in the dirt and hope to find pieces of treasure to earn a day off from the Warden, played by Savannah-Lee Mumford.
Rauchwerk’s iteration rejected the idea of an all-boys camp and instead included a mixed gender cast with delinquents. The most notable gender swap was that of the character Zilch, a spoof of Zero, who is now a petite young African-American woman played by actress Evan Simone.
From the onset, the plot propels itself with a solo performance by Danley Yelnad, played by David Thomas Cronin, who dresses in a tight-fitting ensemble of short shorts, khakis and a striped, short-sleeved blue and purple collared shirt. We see him alone as he addresses a judge and the crowd, for stealing a pair of famous basketball sneakers. Soon, the judge, played by Will Reber, descends onto the stage from behind the audience.
It is apparent that not a single character in the comedic show takes themselves seriously. They constantly comment on their own behavior by breaking the fourth wall and even occasionally provide their own sound effects. When sending Danley to Camp Wetwater, the judge literally says “gavel, gavel,” in lieu of striking a gavel on the podium.
Although staged in an intimate black box theater, the play does not suffer from an unelaborated setup. Projected above the stage are cartoonish renditions of the current setting produced by Becca Schuchat. The band and pianist are situated toward stage left and the rest of the floor is where the plots takes place.
The performance by the actors is entertaining and refreshing, with each scene introducing a different quirk, highlighting the absurdity of the character ending in reactive laughter from the audience. Surprisingly, the well-mannered Yellow Dotted Lizard, played by Myles Phillips, stole the show by being the most normal of the cast. Each time it graced the stage the audience cackled at its calm demeanor.
The performance benefitted from a live band consisting of Ned Steven on guitar, Jake Strauss on bass, Andrew Weiss on drums and Rauchwerk on the piano. The dance and musical numbers do not adhere to one single style, but instead a mesh of styles put together such as pop rock, jazz, rhythm and blues and power ballads heightened by talented performers. In one instance, camper Gail, played by Samantha Disney, awed the crowd with her powerful vocal runs which became an element of the comedy.
The choreography and stage direction by Delia Kemph provides the show with energy that carries itself from scene to scene through each of the underlying narratives. By the time the viewer sees Smoochin’ Sally Seesaw transform into a badass treasure hunter with a thing for kissing dead guys, her musical number matures from cheesy duets to edgy grunge rock. Josy Soriano, who plays Smoochin’ Sally and the Lawyer, reveals her powerhouse voice and salvages what remains of a second act that lags a bit with repetitive jokes and excessive plot explanations.
Emma Howard’s lighting design is simple but effective in directing audience attention to the focal points of each scene. It is especially notable in a number performed by Zilch and Danley, where they grapple with their feelings for each another.
Despite only preparing for the role a few weeks before, while studying to get a yoga certification, Simone’s chemistry with Cronin was palpable. In an interview, Simone stated that her preparation for the part had been “a lot, because when I got casted, I actually got casted kind of last minute so I didn’t have that much time to learn everything.”
She credits the direction of Rauchwerk for being able to handle the load easily. The playwright’s inspiration for writing PITS comes from his childhood reading and watching of Holes. “I thought it was amazing and it was such a captivating story… I wrote the song early on in high school,” he said.
PITS: The Unauthorized Holes Musical was initially produced and performed at New York University over two years ago, but is now staged at the PIT. It will be on view until Nov. 28. When asked why they continue to perform, Kemph says “out of the kindness and love of our gosh darn theater and Louis Sacher-loving hearts.”