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Boyz of All Nationz: The Rise and Fall of a Multi-Ethnic Boy Band
by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati
Is commercial success possible for an ethnically diverse American band? ASIA Theatre bills its first commissioned work, Boyz of All Nationz, as a "bubblegum ride of a boy band that... (almost) took the world by storm." Boyz is a light-hearted, irreverent musical about a band of questionable talent struggling against its own diversity as it tries to make it big. Like the band, this production is ambitious and struggles to find its way.
Four men take the stage as "the boyz," singing and hopping through a silly, but catchy tune while bright-colored lights accentuate the set's fluorescent tones, and stage fog spills out onto the floor. The boyz are playing their hearts out for a crowd that's going wild, or so it seems until Jerry, the band's manager, enters and breaks the spell.
The band is Jerry's brain-child, as are the group's vapid, nerdy and sometimes prurient songs. While it's the "boyz" who capture the audience's attention with their buoyant smiles and refrains like "We've got spunk!" the central story belongs to Jerry. He's the one who makes a deal with the devil to produce the band's first record and soon must choose between giving up artistic control for a shot at financial success, or walking away on his own terms.
"Spunk" is the right word to describe the combination of energy and commitment the singing-dancing actors bring to the stage, and the adventurous spirit of the small company taking on the challenges of a rock musical. In a 100-seat theater with simple staging, the audience depends on the raw energy of these performers to accept the premise of the meteoric rise of a mediocre group. That the harmonies sometimes fail, and the dance steps sometimes fall out of sync doesn't harm the premise that these guys are wannabes like their manager, just younger and less afraid. Most of the songs are entertaining precisely because their lyrics sound so uninspired. And later, when the audience hears a deeply felt song that Jerry has kept hidden, we realize he's actually capable of creating something much more meaningful than anything we've heard before.
Mayo Allen Best III brings understated confidence and a dry wit to his role as Ray-Ray. Chris Galindo's Jace offers his view of the world with conviction and naiveté, delivered with rapid-fire timing. Steve Lee, as Brick, alternates between the sweet-faced lady's man and slang-spouting tough guy. Jonathan Rockett croons plaintively as the band's lead singer (with the un-hip name) Bob, stomping and pouting across the stage whenever a fit of self-pity overtakes him.
In addition to the band, other characters appear to fill out their off- stage relationships. V. Helene Maynard, as Mieka, brings passion to her portrayal of the girlfriend who wants Ray-Ray's attention. Rahaleh Nassri quickly alternates between comic and poignant moods as Luz, the teenager who's tired of "being stupid" and seeks unconditional love from her brother, Jace. Adam Jurotich and Jennifer Ayn Knight play a variety of ensemble roles, each one distinct from the others. In the case of Jurotich, however, his problem with diction results in the audience straining to hear his lines. The role of Jerry was played by Joey Cabrera the night I saw the performance. His interpretation emphasizes the awkwardness and fragility of his character, but lacks the energy and active listening necessary to sustain the audience's interest throughout the conversations he has with others.
The director, Edu. Bernardino, uses the momentum of the opening number effectively but loses the audience's focus as the play proves to be less dependent on the boyz' stories than on Jerry's. This, of course, points to a problem in the writing, because the author builds an expectation in the audience which changes in the second act as we watch the band's stories fizzle out prematurely. Bernardino directs the comic scenes with a nimble touch, guiding the actors to the right build in each scene. Occasionally the dialogue grows static in the second act, especially during long telephone conversations between Jerry and the producer. The action on stage begins to drag just when the characters' interaction lose tempo in the writing.
The set is vivid but simple, consisting of fabric panel portraits of the band in citrus-and-berry colors on either side of the painted stage with a scrim at the back. The costumes are an eclectic mix of over-size prints, track suits and flashy synthetics, with the occasional bad wig or McDonald's uniform. As director and designer, Bernardino found a simple but specific way to create a bedroom in the first act by throwing a comforter and two pillows on the floor. After this scene, he uses cubes in various configurations to designate each space, but they become repetitive and never carry the specificity of the earlier design choice. Lynn Joslin's lights bring intense color to the band's "bubble gum" world and create the impression of a concert in progress. Michael Perryman's sound design sets the mood for the play with familiar hits, but repeats itself continually.
Boyz of All Nationz is witty and confrontational in many places, but not quite sure of itself as a whole. The band members seem central at the beginning, but secondary by the end, and the second act goes on too long. The idea of spending the evening with a band of questionable talent is intriguing, but not fully justified by this production. Characters are inexplicably cavalier, then distraught, then cavalier again, as if the future that mattered moments ago has just slipped their minds. Still, for all its uncertainties, Boyz of All Nationz shows glimpses of polish, comedy at the expense of cultural taboos, committed performances and moments of human compassion. All this, and plenty of spunk.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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