Derma is a multi-decade musical about a woman with a rare autoimmune disease. Let me say that again, a multi-decade musical about a woman with a rare autoimmune disease, scleroderma. Sure, stranger themes have taken the stage — Lttle Shop of Horrors, Spam-A-Lot, Avenue Q — but what those productions benefited from was a hearty helping of humor. Derma is a drama trying to be a comedy, wrapped up in awkward choreography with one too many verses to each song.
That’s not to diminish the talent of its cast who did their very best opening night to bring the strange plot to life. Megan Lewis as Joan the ailing ingenue, her husband Richard, played by Alex Hoeffler, and extra/stagehand/various cast member Jenny Rose Baker are a qualified bunch. Lewis recently appeared on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Grey Gardens, and her voice, that of the powerful, belty variety, is eleven o’clock number ready (although in Woolfe Street Playhouse’s small theater with an audience of 30 people, the microphone was not necessary). But the staging, my god, was that miming? And Hoeffler for his part recently made his Broadway debut in Lincoln Center Theater’s War Horse, making it all the more frustrating to find him involved in such kitschy choreography.
I don’t blame Drew Brody, author of the music and lyrics either. His score showed real promise and Hoeffler, Lewis, and Baker sang their hearts out. Sure there were some missteps, putting the word gastroenterologist in a song with only a fleeting hint at irony and in another tune rhyming “dry down there” (yes, I am referring to “that” down there) left something to be desired. But the real hiccup in Derma is the script itself, written and directed by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts graduates Jared Coseglia and Cory Grant and inspired by the latter’s mother’s high school friend.
The show begins in 1959 with a young Joan at Stanford. She meets Richard (queue duet) they get married, she gets various diagnoses for her deteriorating health (queue song) and time goes by marked by gobo lights spelling out the year on the black curtain above. One quickly realizes it won’t be another decade until we’re halfway through the show.
I can sort of see how Grant and Coseglia thought a production centered around a woman struggling with an incurable illness causing scar-like tissue on her skin and organs would be compelling fodder for an 85 minute show. Unfortunately in Derma’s current iteration, it’s not.