Brandon Ivie had a problem to solve. During the first scene of Jasper in Deadland, his hero needed to take a deep dive into the underworld while singing a rousing anthem along the way. It was the spring of 2014, and the show was set to debut off-Broadway in an 80-seat theater. Expensive Spiderman-like flying harnesses were out of the question; Ivie couldn’t afford to be literal. He had to get creative. The solution: rippling sheets of blue fabric to represent the turbulent waters standing between the 16-year-old Jasper and his missing best friend, Agnes.
“I went to a fabric store and convinced them to give me a thousand dollars worth of fabric for, like, $200,” says the UW-trained Ivie, sitting in the lobby of the 5th Avenue Theatre on a recent afternoon. “I paid with cash.”
That fabric came to represent the scrappy staging of the new musical by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver. The image of lead actor Matt Doyle swimming through the blue billowing sheets adorned a warm review in The New York Times, which called the production “inventively staged” and “quite a bit of fun.” Jasper’s buzzed-about month-long run was a coup for Ivie, who had never before directed in New York City.
Fortunately for the bicoastal Bellevue native, there’s now a company account to pay for the much larger sheets that usher in the darkly comic tale, now expanded for its 5th Avenue opening on Thursday. This Jasper is in many ways much like last year’s production, says Ivie. It has the same lead actor in Doyle, and of course the same director. But it is a much, much larger affair, taking place in a room 25 times the size of the West End Theater.
“I was just blown away,” says Doyle, who before Jasper was playing Elder Price in the long-running Broadway smash The Book of Mormon. Joining us in the lobby of the historic 1926 theater, he says of the 5th, “It’s one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever been in. This little show that we had in a church attic, here, it’s just unbelievable.”
Yet the scaled-up production has also proved daunting for Ivie, who was offered the spring slot in January (this January!) after the scheduled debut of another new musical, Something Rotten!, was snatched up by Broadway. The 5th’s artistic director, Bill Berry, had seen Jasper in New York and invited Ivie to do a table read in December. Ivie recalls, “They came up to me and [composer/lyricist Oliver] and [writer Foster] after that reading, and we’re like, ‘So what’s your schedule like?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m probably doing this holiday show next season’ . . . And they were like, ‘No, no, no. In the next three months, what’s your schedule like?’ ”
, the 5th has now produced 17 new musicals since 2001—nine of which have been exported to Broadway. But Ivie is also an export for which the theater can make some claim.
A graduate of the Village Theatre KidStage in Issaquah, Ivie has in the past four years emerged as a great young talent, a point of pride in our region’s strong musical-theater scene. Early in his career, Ivie found work with the 5th, serving as the casting director for 2009’s A Christmas Story. When that new musical headed to Broadway in late 2012, Ivie signed on as the assistant director. And since then he’s been splitting his time between New York and Seattle. Here he’s since directed a critically lauded production of Next to Normal at Balagan Theatre, the return of A Christmas Story to the 5th, and, this spring at Seattle Rep, the Justin Huertas musical Lizard Boy. Back in New York, however, Ivie was biding his time. While working as assistant or associate director for a handful of productions or directing readings and workshops, he says, he was waiting for the right production to make his debut.
That chance would come from Oliver, whose untested musical had been commissioned by the Pasadena Musical Theatre Program in 2011. Oliver had never seen Ivie direct, but had worked with him on New Voices, the Seattle musical showcase that Ivie has produced for the past decade with his own company, Contemporary Classics. Based on that, and a shared sensibility explored further over drinks in New York, the composer handed Jasper over to Ivie.
The musical—an edgy, modern interpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—was obviously challenging, one reason it appealed to Ivie. “I get all the shows that on paper seem sort of impossible, and they have no idea how the hell someone’s going to do it,” says Ivie. “I sort of see myself as more of a problem-solver than I am an auteur director.”
Before the New York production, Oliver invited Ivie to throw the original stage directions out the window. Then Ivie got to work figuring out how to bring the story to life on an off-Broadway budget (hence the haggling at the fabric store). Forced to stretch his ingenuity when his dollars could stretch no further, Ivie created a production that relied on basic theatrical conventions—and the audience’s suspension of disbelief—to tell a wildly expansive story. While planning this larger Seattle production, Ivie says he felt some pressure to toss out the fabrics and bring in the harness. But by then the imaginative essence of Jasper was already baked into it.
Ivie recalls, “We thought, ‘OK, we could fly him. We could put him in a harness and Peter Pan him and fly him all through the opening number.’ But we very quickly were like, ‘While that’s really cool, and it would be a really awesome way to start the show, it’s not going to be consistent with the way we’re going to tell our story.’ ”
Doyle concurs: “It didn’t feel like Jasper in Deadland.”
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, 5thavenue.org. $29 and up. Opens Thurs., May 14. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Wed., 8 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1:30 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends May 24.