"Who's the bad guy?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

"Skullduggery," the world premiere musical at Sacred Fools, fashions itself as a prequel to "Hamlet." Remember Shakespeare's tale of a young man avenging the death of his father and the usurpation of the crown by his uncle Claudius? At the core of “Skullduggery” is a tempting question: what if Claudius wasn't such a bad guy after all? What if we've been rooting for the wrong side and it was actually Hamlet's dad who was the villain. It's a bit like the way "Wicked" re imagines the witches from Oz. Suddenly, a story we thought we knew is totally different.

To get there, "Skullduggery" begins when Claudius and his older brother Hamlet, Sr. are both coming of age. We're still in Elsinore and most of the characters we know from Shakespeare are there: Polonius, Yorick, Gertrude. I won't spoil the plot. Suffice it to say - Claudius is the sympathetic one.

Now if Michael Shaw Fisher, who wrote the book, lyrics and music, came up and pitched you at a cocktail party and you happened to be a devotee of the bard you'd probably be intrigued. He's got some interesting notions and a couple clever twists.

The trouble is when it comes to the musical he's created, he can't decide, in either form or content, exactly what it wants to be. The result is bit like watching 3 or 4 plays at once. One is a bawdy, irreverent tale told by singing and dancing gravediggers that feels like it belongs in a late night show. Then there's a tongue-in-cheek, ironic take on Shakespeare's story that interjects thoroughly modern sexual references with a wink and a nod to the audience. Then there's a terribly, terribly earnest period love story. Then there's a dizzying series of plot points buried inside of songs that move things along without actually telling a compelling story.

When it comes to the songs, themselves, things don't fair much better.

One of the key questions in any musical is: what allows people to sing? In some musicals, it's the moment when the emotion simply becomes too much. Thinking outside the theater, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" brilliantly fits that model. Then there are the through-sung musicals where the songs do everything - there's virtually no dialogue. Think "Les Mis" or, with a rap asterisk, "Hamilton." In some musicals the characters remain the characters, in others characters can become chorus for someone else's imagined world. The exact logic doesn't much matter as long as it's consistent.

The musical challenge in "Skullduggery" is, like the story, it's a derivative little bit of everything. In one moment we're in a sung-through musical. In the next, there's what seems to be period dialogue then dialogue that emotionally bursts into song. All the while, you're desperately scrambling to make sense of a plot that's both tied to an inevitable end in Shakespeare's beginning and at the same time completely un-moored.

All of this is a shame because the cast seems to be giving it their all and trying to make the best of a jumbled two hour and thirty minute mess. Often in the theater, failure is the product of too many cooks in the kitchen. Here, it feels like Mr. Fisher was instead wearing one too many hats.

"Skullduggery" plays at the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood through November 5th.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Sherman Photography.