It’s really hard to come up with an original premise for a musical. It has to be compelling, relatively novel, yet universal in its appeal. Simon Chouinard and T. Michael Vest, the writers behind “Who Are You?” have certainly found a story worth experiencing.
The show is quite small in scope. Seven performers, three of whom pull Greek chorus duty, are participants in a reality show. Three imposters, people who’ve either co-opted another’s identity or simply fabricated one, “catfish” style, vie for the prize – a brand new identity into which they will be allowed to disappear completely. The show is named for “Kaspar Hauser”, the infamous perpetrator of a 19th century German identity hoax, and the host of the show identifies himself as the actual Kaspar Hauser, popped up shiny and new in our present day. The show-within-a-show then uses the three imposters’ competition as a frame for Kasper’s own story, which is unsolved to this day.
In May of 1828, so the musical tells us, a 17 year old young man appeared in Nuremberg with two letters in his possession – one, a plea from his young mother who was forced to abandon him at his birth, and the other a letter written by the man who subsequently raised him, asking that he be taken into the military. Both of these letters were written in the same hand, and from the time Hauser was discovered, until his death in 1833, the details he gave about his personal journey were never confirmed and, in fact, Hauser changed them over time. Werner Herzog explored this same story, albeit in a more (only slightly more) straightforward fashion, in his film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” in 1974, which was, itself, inspired by the novel “Inertia of the Heart”, written by Jakob Wassermann in 1908. Thematically, all three of these works explore the same thing – are we who we say we are, no matter what we say we are, or are we merely what others expect?
Daniel Bender Stern gives a sweet and poignant performance as Kaspar, both in his present-day host persona and during the scenes meant to evoke the period. Ed Rosini as Frederic, the contestant called “The Chameleon”, has an eminently castable voice and played his characters’ obnoxious entitlement with panache. And I’m very much looking forward to seeing more from Noah Reece (“Piano Man”), whose lovely voice and acting chops make him suited for at least a dozen juicy roles in the musical theatre canon – I walked out of the theatre wondering what he would do with Sondheim’s “Johanna.”