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A CurtainUp Review
Ministry of Progress

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Do you ever fantasize about being beaten with rubber mallets?
---Eugene Poole
The Cast
The Cast
As the show begins, we meet Dave Glutterman (Jason Scott Campbell), a young man, recently transplanted from the midwest, who is enroute to the Ministry of Progress to get his newly minted driver's license fixed. (His name is spelled wrong, and his date and place are way off.) That he encounters nothing but hassles from the ministry's rude bureaucrats is not surprising; that the ministry is a sort of black hole from which those who darken its doorstep can't escape adds a potentially intriguing development. The latter group includes a woman, Sylvia (Jennifer McCabe), who catches Dave's eye, thereby adding a romantic angle to the mix.

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.

Ministry of Progress
by Kim Hughes, adapted from the play by William Morrow
Songs by John Beltzer, Sara Carlson, Philip Dessinger, Ted Eyes, Alex Forbes, Kathy Hart, Kim Hughes, Gary Levine, Christian Martirano, Jeremey Schonfeld and Tony Visconti Directed by Ms. Hughes

with Jason Scott Campbell, Brian J. Dorsey, Tyne Firmin, Gary Maricheck, Jennifer McCabe, Maia Moss, Julie Reiber, Stacey Sergeant, Richard E. Waits and Christian Whelan
Band: Tommy Faragher, J. Fitz Harris, Joe Friedman, Joe Raposo
Set Design: Adriana Serrano
Lighting Design: Jason Kantrowitz
Costume Design: Fabio Toblini
Sound Design: Michael G. Ward
Video Director: Greg Slagle
Musical Director and Arranger: Christian Martirano
Hair/Makeup Design: Jason P. Hayes
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Jame Street Theatre, 113 Jane Street (@West Street)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
TUES - FRI @8, SAT @7 and 10, SUN @3 and 7; $60-65
Opening March 4, 2004, open run
Open run turned into a quickly closed run-- Last performance, 3/28/04 after 18 preview performances and 30 regular performances.
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/3/04 performance

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