Boy Falls From the Sky (Theatre) Review: Life is a Cabaret

Is it still a jukebox musical if all the songs are lifted from other musicals?

I’d like to think so, and I imagine Jake Epstein, creator/star of Boy Falls From the Sky, thinks so as well. Epstein’s newish musical (it was a hit at the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival) crosses storytelling with musical revue, pulling from the best (or at least, the most readily licensed) songs from Epstein’s career in musical theatre. At 35 years old, he’s had a surprisingly lengthy career at that, dating all the way to his child actor days in Oliver! and up to the ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Perhaps better suited to a cabaret hall or Fringe tent than the 1,200-seat Royal Alexandra Theatre, Boy nonetheless makes for an amusing, good-natured jaunt through one man’s musical history.

Boy Falls From the Sky poster
Boy Falls From the Sky (Image Credit: Mirvish/Past Future Productions)

Jake Epstein, a good Toronto boy and alumnus of the Claude Watson School For the Arts, is best known, if he’s known at all, for three things: being one of the non-Drake kids on Degrassi: the Next Generation, originating the leading role of Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and somehow coming out of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark relatively unscathed.

Boy Falls From the Sky is something of a greatest-hits of the above, taking us, in story and song, through Epstein’s trajectory from minor child star on to moderate adult success, punctuated by a series of failures that had him, more than once, considering giving up his career. Still, even as Epstein touches on some darker themes – on-set injuries, the despair of failed auditions, stage fright – Boy is resolutely upbeat. Epstein knows he’s here to put on a show, and he doesn’t let any of the bad stuff linger for more than a few seconds before the next song or funny story. Parents be warned, however: a handful too many F-bombs probably preclude the attendance of younger theatre lovers.

Much of Boy is taken up with Epstein’s struggles as a young actor trying to make it big on Broadway. Again and again, Epstein comes near to but never quite landing the roles of his dreams. This is well-trodden territory, but Epstein keeps us engaged with performances of (failed) audition pieces and his relaxed, charismatic storytelling style. A recurring theme – Epstein fails to get roles because he’s “too tall” – also gives rise to the show’s best musical number, “Apparently I’m Too Tall”, in which Epstein hilariously laments his fate while rattling off a list of beloved tall actors, from Clint Eastwood to Allison Janney to “Jeff Goldblum – pretty tall for a Jewish person!” (Epstein is Jewish.)

There’s some good stuff in Boy. Epstein is a decent singer, and audiences will get a kick out of his jukebox-like cycling through songs from hit musicals ranging from Spring Awakening to Green Day’s American Idiot to Lion King and, Epstein’s favourite and mine, Cabaret. Epstein’s anecdote about meeting his hero Joel Grey is one of the highlights. Indeed, all the celebrity name-dropping is good for a smile or chuckle, from his awkward interactions with legendary performers, to his allusions to decidedly more famous costars on Suits and Degrassi. Frankly, Boy probably could have done a bit more with that last bit; Epstein used to hang out with some of the most famous people in the world, back before they were über-famous. The dude must have stories, but evidently those stories aren’t for public consumption.

Which brings us to Spider-Man.

Epstein was an “alternate” Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, one of several to perform the role during its short-lived, accident-plagued Broadway run back in the early 2010s. Consider it a minor miracle that, as Epstein relates, he only came out of Spider-Man with two sprained ankles and a sprained wrist. (By the end of his run on Spider-Man, Epstein was on an eight-Advil-a-night regimen in order to get through the pain.) One disappointment about Boy Falls From the Sky is that Epstein resolutely refuses to dish any dirt on the biggest flop in Broadway history. Nothing about the behind-the-scenes drama, the creative battles between creator Julie Taymor (she of Lion King: the Musical fame) and director Philip William McKinley. Indeed, Epstein blames his injuries on his own mistakes, which is (a) just factually untrue, since we know Spider-Man had horrendous safety protocols, and (b) is an unfortunate bit of self-victim-blaming, at a time when the entertainment industry is reckoning with the toxic culture that led to those injuries in the first place.

Still, the Spider-Man segment – which also lends the show its title song, a fairly dreadful Bono/The Edge concoction which Epstein nevertheless manages to wring some pathos out of – is probably the highlight of the night. Epstein’s travails on Spider-Man, but also the sheer joy he got from performing in it, paint a picture of a man devoted to his craft. A man so happy that he could just get up and stage and sing about it.