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Ministry of Progress
by Les Gutman
I wish I could say that the setup is exploited successfully. Unfortunately, Ministry of Progress is a well-funded but flat-footed effort. It is based on a radio play to which director Kim Hughes has appended some sixteen songs contributed by eleven songwriters. Perhaps the original worked better, but in its current form it tells a wafer-thin story largely rendered irrelevant by a bevy of adornments. Taken individually, some have merit; cumulatively, they succeed only in diverting our attention from the central character's journey.
With minimal exceptions, the committee of songwriters do not go to the trouble of writing material which connects to the action, and director Kim Fields (who is also a writer of one of the best songs, "The One") stages most as variety acts rather than part of the show. The songs thus function as interludes in which the denizens of the Ministry (both the oppressors and the oppressed) do their own thing. By sheer volume, they quickly hijack the production. That one can admire some of the songs, or the performers who sing them, does not compensate.
The show also boasts some of the finest video work (projected on three large screens) I've seen in the theater. Video director Greg Slagle deserves our applause. In the opening scene, in which the videos provide scenic background to Dave's trek to the MOP, Ms. Hughes finely integrates the videos with the action onstage. Throughout much of the rest of the play, unfortunately, she allows them to draw focus from the live action.
Mr. Campbell, who happens to have one of the weaker voices in the cast, appears to have given up the battle. While the charmingly unsophisticated Dave perseveres until he gets the show's dual prizes (his corrected license -- in a scene Hughes stages very nicely but which centers on a regrettable reliance on Maia Moss's ample breasts as its only joke -- and the girl), Campbell cedes control, satisfied to ride the show's waves to the finish line. To be fair, the deck is stacked against him. This is, after all, a show in which the leading man doesn't get a song until well after the half-way mark, and then it's a duet that follows an insane showstopper by the even crazier Gene Poole (Christian Whelan). To give a sense of the show's banal joke quotient, this character's name is one of the better ones.
Ministry bills itself as a rock musical, which it is. The songs are a mixed bag: some more appealing than others, but too many feeling a wee bit too familiar to be called groundbreaking on any level. It's hard to walk into the Jane Street Theatre without fondly recalling its first tenant, Hedwig. Suffice it to say nothing here gives Stephen Trask's score for that rock musical much competition. The band, notwithstanding, sounds great, and can't be faulted at all. The sound design, however, is astonishingly bad. For a show that has spent a good deal of obvious money on it tech elements (Jason Kantrowitz's lighting boasts an abundance of riches), is it too much to ask that we hear the singers above the band, or that the shrill reverb be corrected?
This show is apparently a labor of inexplicable love on the part of Kim Hughes (who is credited as "Director, Producer, Author, Composer"). Her co-producer is a former executive of his family grocery store chain who gave it all up to pursue a passion for musical theater. His pursuit will have to continue.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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