Note: Instead of using the performers' real names, I'm using the term Foo-A meaning "Actor who played Foo"
At long last, Buffy fans can rejoice at the MIT production of "Once More With Feeling". However, for those who are expecting an exact replica of Joss Whedon's masterpiece, I have one advice: Forget it. Before you enjoy the performance, you must understand the realization that this is done by a rag-tag group of musical veterans and Buffy fans who are giving you this FOR FREE. Hence, there are no CGI vampires getting dusted at the first embrace of Buffy's stake. There is little in the way of scene change (a box or two gets moved), especially in a basement room that seats a maximum of 40-50 people. The actors have multiple roles; for example, Spike-A is also the dry cleaner who's glad that "they got the mustard out." Without the luxury of long camera shots across the streets of Sunnydale, the performers can afford to cut the musical's time to less than an hour. In fact, the show is shorter than Joss's musical.
For people seeing the story for the first time, there is no "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer" segment to explain the backplot. Instead, we are taken to the ambience of a nightclub setting hosted by Lorne of "Angel" fame (or infamy if you are a purist). The horned, green demon begins with a number of "Hot Stuff" with a trio of devilish Lornettes. It changes the overtone such that you feel like you are in a cheap cabaret instead of your own home watching on TV. He is the MC, the host, the narrator. His partner in crime is sonata960 behind the piano. She seemed more livelier than the host as she performs the number for every song in the show. The duo sets the tone for the opening number, "Going Through The Motions." Each number in the musical is quick and continuous except for the moments where Lorne explains more backplot (i.e. Buffy's relationship with Spike, Willow's spell, etc.). As a fan of the show, I understand the story too well to find this narration unnecessary. There is, however, one funny exception. Instead of Buffy executive producer Marti Nixon singing out getting a parking ticket as background noise, we are treated with the song as a stand alone number by a late Lornette explaining her tardiness mid-show. The show itself can be broken down to the individual efforts. Here's a summary of each character performance:
For the role of the title protagonist, they got someone who can play Buffy's angst and torment very well, especially in the opening number of "Going Through the Motions". Buffy-A is definitely a better singer than Sarah Michelle Gellar. She doesn't steal the show, but that's the point. The episode was not designed to be focused on just Buffy. It's about secrets, deception, uncertainty, emotions, and trust. Buffy-A got it just right.
I'm personally biased about the performance of Xander-A because I have seen his works in the MTG production of "The Fantastiks", "Anything Goes", "Assassins", "Star Wars: The Musical", etc. He has played serious to goofy for 10 years and can summon goofiness in being Xander Harris. What's more is that he's a much better singer than Nick Brendon (the weakest singer of the original musical in my book). He's got the neuroses, the jittery movements, and the dance numbers almost to a science, especially with his duet with Anya-A (more on her later). Perfect examples are (1) his "evil witches" segment and (2) his "tight embrace". It's the idiosynchrasies that make the audience like the character and make Xander-A's performance great.
For this episode, I can't discuss Xander-A without talking about Anya-A. She channeled Anya. Not Emma Caufield, but the former vengeance demon herself. Her "Bunnies" solo (with a dark red spotlight shining upon her) was perfect. Her comedic delivery was almost flawless. We get the Astaire-Rogers symmetry when she does her "I'll Never Tell" number with Xander-A. The only drawback was that the number was sung in the presence of Giles rather than in their own private room (due to budget and time constraints). But that is inconsequential compared to her solid performance.
Like Xander-A, I remember Giles-A from MTG and his performances in "Evita", "Assassins", and "The Fantastiks" among other shows. Thought he was all wrong for Che. As a veteran, he does his best in this musical, but his work is directly proportional to how well he can maintain a British accent (which is not continuous). When he sings, he suddenly becomes a Southerner. For a while, I thought I was he was channeling John Wilkes Boothe instead of Anthony Steward Head. He lacks Giles' guile and tenacity. In the original, Giles was no longer the sheepish, bookish librarian. Giles-A probably was thinking season 1. You don't sense the connection between Giles and Buffy. It seems forced and unnatural, which made the "In the Way/Under Your Spell" even worse (but more on that later). The actor looks like he just got back from singing "Damn You, Lincoln" instead of "I've Got a Feeling."
And then, there's Spike-A. Like Giles-A, his performance relies heavily on whether he can keep his accent. Spike-A can maintain it at least through most of the numbers. The actor actually has three roles: Spike, the "Mustard" guy, and the helpless victim in "Going Through the Motions". He can play out Spike's angst and sexual chemistry with Buffy. You feel for the guy. It's the little movements that matter. He even rolls his eyes in disbelief as he begins "Rest in Peace". He was good.
Dawn was naive, annoying, and whiny...just like the Dawn of the original. The difference is that Michelle Tractenburg was less nasal in her singing. It's a case of fluidity.
I must rate Tara-A and Willow-A as a unit because, frankly, they were nearly inseparable throughout the show. The song "Under Your Spell" was converted into a duet. Since, there was no mention of Tara's background (except for the memory spell), there was no emphasis on her dependency on Willow which made the deception the more brutal. Any chance of redeeming the number fell flat by the fact that Tara-A was the weakest singer of the group. This was ironic considering that Tara in the original was practically the strongest. Hence, the musical roles were reversed for the characters of Willow and Tara. Tara was too sheepish to be effective. Putting her next to the more audible Giles-A made their duet fall short as well. There was no balance. A disappointment. It was the weakest link.
Following the tradition of saving the best for last, I will now talk about Sweet and Sweet-A. The character resembled the Lord of Darkness from "Legend" in a zoot suit. He had the moves. He had the pipes. It wasn't the soft, jazzy melody of the original character. It was a bellow of furious fantasy. Sweet-A enjoyed being evil and entertaining simultaneously. Normally, he is accompanied by a trio of Pinocchio dancers. They weren't necessary. He could steal the stage without the need for minions. Best part of the show.
Overall, it was a good show and a valiant effort that tried to hold true to the TV series, right down to the piano player imitating the Mutant Enemy mascot ("Grrr. Argh")