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A CurtainUp Omnibus Review
The 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Shows Reviewed (*Asterisks before titles as they are reviewed) :
*Hurricane | *Academy |*Fantasy Football | *Fat Camp |F@#cking Up Everything | *The Happy Embalmer | *Max Understood | *Rainbow Around the Sun | *Seeing Stars | *Street Lights | *The Toymaker | *Whatever Man |
F@#cking Up Everything
Provocative title, check. Provocative show, not so much. But I did have fun. It's a sweet, if basic, story of a nerd and his indie-rock hipster friends, complete with unrequited love and tangled relationships. But there's a certain irreverence to F@#cking Up Everything that makes it highly enjoyable, particularly as captured by those indie rock hipsters.
The band around which the plot centers is vulgar and wacky; it's hard to figure out how its womanizing front man (adorable So You Think You Can Dance alum Neil Haskell) could be friends with a puppeteer who might well be the sweetest guy on earth (the endlessly endearing Noah Weisberg). They compete for girls (an intelligent singing beauty in particular) and have completely different outlooks, but they're old friends, and they're there for each other.
F@#cking Up Everything features a fun rock score with some definite long-lasting earworms, but the highlight is Sam Forman's book, especially its quick wit and snappy humor. The characters may be clichÈd, but Forman keeps the laughs coming, even when the plotline becomes tired. The show might be fluffy, but its writing is smart, and this seems a team to watch. – Reviewed by Deborah Blumenthal on October 16 at the 45th Street Theatre
I've had the demo to Street Lights since seeing excerpts from the show performed at a fundraiser for President Obama's campaign in early 2008 and have been curious to see the show in ful. I it did not disappoint.
The synopsis might make it sound a bit like In The Heights, but past locale and genre-mixing, it takes a completely different angle. Its focus is on a group of high school students fighting to save their neighborhood's Music Center, a community safe-haven filled with legacy. It's a much darker, edgier and more political look at life in Upper Manhattan, as these characters' lives are torn apart by drugs and violence, and they look to the civil rights movement for inspiration. Their passion is moving, but strangely, it's not until tragedy strikes that they look past simply saving the music center, and turn their sights on the betterment of their community.
Joe Drymala has created a genuine hip-hop theater score, one in which the musical genre is of utmost importance, but the pounding bass lines and synthesized sounds often overpower his lyrics, which need to be at the forefront of the storytelling.
This is the kind of contemporary show with a big voice that festivals like the NYMF were built for. . It's already (deservedly) headed out to the Old Globe in San Diego, and I look forward to seeing what comes next. — Reviewed by Deborah Blumenthal on October 17 at the ATA – Chernuchin Theater
Rainbow Around the Sun
In this show music star Zachary Blasto is being interviewed on his hometown radio station. It often feels fragmented and fuzzy, something like a fever dream — an apt sensation, as Zach not only talks, but also drinks, his way through significant moments in his life. Writer Matthew Alvin Brown (the founder of a band himself) plays Zachary, but the undoubted star is the score. Songs dovetail to vignettes as Zachary recounts growing up, falling in love, loss, and destruction throughout his career. The final moments are moving, when,in recounting his father's death, Zachary finally breaks open. Though his story is difficult to connect with as for most of the show he is callous, detached and largely unlikable, Brown's performance does bring out a sorrow that incites, if not pity, a sense of intrigue.
I'd suspect Rainbow worked better in its previous film incarnation. It's interesting to watch, but doesn't seem germane to the stage. Similarly, Brown is clearly verytalented, but this musical leaves one more interested to see his work with his band. – Reviewed by Deborah Blumenthal on October 17 at the 45th Street Theatre
It's a little bit Guys and Dolls (opposites attract), a touch of City of Angels (a smoky, jazzy score), and a splash of Damn Yankees (sports meets musical theater), so don't be surprised if the new musical Seeing Stars doesn't feel all that new to you in the end. Still, this winsome retread—which builds up to a definitive boxing match between old rivals “Gentleman” Joe Sullivan and Eddie “Bare Knuckles” McSoreley in 1937 Hell's Kitchen—includes enough captivating parts to make up for its derivative whole.
In particular, Kevin Earley and Michael Halling (as McSoreley and Sullivan) do a fine job navigating their barbed rivalry, while Margaret Nichols turns in a lovely Girl Friday turn as plucky Jean Barker, a rising reporter determined to capture a sensational sports story. (She also, of course, just happens to end up in the middle of this love triangle; and, at one point, the boxing ring.) Director Jenn Thompson gets the throw-back tone just right, and the energetic ensemble gamely whizzes through Liza Gennaro's slinky choreography.
There's really nothing to complain about in Seeing Stars. Shelley McPherson (book), Don Breithaupt (music), and Jeff Breithaupt (lyrics) have created a very endearing, enjoyable production. It's just hard to stop wishing—as the piano and drums spar and jab at each other during the perky overture—that the show ultimately packed more of a punch. —Reviewed by Amy Krivohlavek on October 13 at Theatre at St. Clements.
Fantasy Football: the Musical
Fantasy Football: the Musical Is there really an audience for this show? Who knows, but those who do make it to this festival production are likely to enjoy themselves. It te lls the (totally fictional) history of how fantasy football became the phenomenon it is today. Set in 1991, it features real life sports analysts Bill Simmons (played by "The Amazing Race" winner Nick Spangler) and Matthew Berry (Ben Steinfeld) as regular guys in their early twenties who struggle with finding a career as meaningful to them as their sports teams are. Along the way, Fantasy Football reveals itself to be a warmhearted tribute to male friendships and the bonding power of sports. The show was originally written for an ESPN contest, and feels like it: many of the jokes are sophomoric, several characters feel extraneous (for example, Forbidden Broadway vet Christine Pedi is totally wasted) and the songs, though likeable are uneven. All this doesn't matter much, though: Fantasy Football is so good-natured, funny, and unexpectedly sweet that we forgive its flaws. Thanks to the excellent cast, Adam Arian's spot-on direction and author David Ingber's witty storyline, this "show without an audience" is bound to be one of the more popular new musicals at NYMF. —Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 3 at TBG Theatre.
The Happy Embalmer
The Happy Embalmer certainly avoids tired comedic cliches. The funeral industry, the Dalai Lama, and Iceland are among this goofy new musical's targets for lampoonery. It's the story of Edward, a talented young embalmer at a family-owned funeral home, who discovers he can bring the dead back to life. Add in an evil Texan funeral corporation, Edward's four clownishly stupid brothers, a Hollywood star conspiracy, and of course, the Dalai Lama's worldly marketing plan, and you get a sense of just how zany the show is. Despite all this creativity, The Happy Embalmer fails to deliver on almost every level. That's mainly because of the sloppy writing. Authors Mark Noonan and Nick Oddy did not insert enough laughs to carry off the relentlessly unrealistic premise, nor did they structure the show so as to give it dramatic momentum, nor did they make their characters very likable or interesting. In addition, the production seems to have very little coherence: director Kelly Devine could have done more to bring the show's disparate elements together, though her choreography is energetic and likable.
To its credit, The Happy Embalmer has a terrific cast, led by Broadway vets Daniel Reichard (as the wonderfully woeful title character) and Tituss Burgess (brilliantly diva-like as the Dalai Lama). Additionally, Austin Switser's projections infuses unexpected humor and technological savvy into the physical production. Nevertheless, The Happy Embalmer needs a lot more work if it's to become the wacky musical it aspires to be. —Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 7 at Acorn Theatre.
Given the uncertain teenage mind and the difficulties of high school, it's not so surprising that some kids would make a deal with the devil just to get through the semester. That's the central plot of Academy, a Faustian musical set in a posh boy's boarding school. Freshman Benji has trouble fitting in both socially and academically, and two seniors make a bet on just how far he'll go to succeed. The production is directed by Urinetown's John Carrafa, and features one of the stronger scores I've heard at the festival, with catchy music and colorful lyrics by John Mercurio, who also wrote the book.
Mercurio's talent as a both as a songwriter and a playwright are obvious, but this show still feels like a work in progress. Academy runs just 80 minutes, but the story line feels stretched thin even at that length. Towards the end of the show, some of the unfolding revelations are pretty hard to swallow, and the eventual life lesson feels forced as a result. At these moments, Academy feels like a poor man's Spring Awakening. Interestingly enough, the production is at its strongest when it drops the heavy-handed Faust imitation and instead becomes a slice-of-life of teenage boyhood, with hilarious exchanges between classmates, moving moments of insecurity, and well-crafted songs. Carrafa's cocksure direction and the nine very likable young men in the cast make up for many of the piece's shortcomings, however. Overall, then, this is a very promising show, one that's given a strong production with likable actors. Academy doesn't feel quite ready for a wider audience, but I feel we'll be seeing more of this piece, and certainly more of its author. —Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 7 at TBG Theatre.
Max Understood must be one of the more unusual musicals featured at the festival; in fact, it doesn't feel like a musical at all. The production, about a day in the life of an autistic boy named Max is really best called an experimental play with music. Co-creator and composer Michael Rasbury is primarily a sound designer, a fact that explain's much of how Max Understood proceeds. Rasbury's music has something of a tuneless, tonal sound, but the score is nevertheless lively: he pipes in alarm clocks, television commercials, washing machine gurgling and other ambient noises to create the rhythmic, repetitive sounds that go through young Max's head on a daily basis.
The storyline is skimpy. Max (the very talented young actor Marlon Sherman) wanders off one day from his home and meets some of the characters in his neighborhood, while his parents frantically search for him. We mostly see events from Max's perspective, giving the show a swirly, dreamlike quality that is further enhanced through Caleb Wertenbaker's white sheeted scenic design and David Schweizer's fluid direction. Max Understood runs just 70 minutes, but the conceptual feel of the piece starts to wear thin by the show's end. Nevertheless, it's nice to see NYMF branch out into this sort of music theatre, a type of show that constantly pushes boundaries. —Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 4 at 45th St. Theatre.
Bryan Putnam, author of the book, music and lyrics for The Toymaker, certainly doesn't back down from risky subject material. The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the massacre at Lidice, concentration camps— all feature heavily in this unabashedly emotional new musical. Weighty stuff indeed. The bad news is that as it stands now, The Toymaker is more ponderous than powerful. The new musical takes place in Lidice in 1942 as well as the present day. It's structured as a mystery. Modern-day New Yorker Sarah (Broadway vet Rosena M. Hill) travels to Europe to look for a toy made by one of the Lidice victims, and in doing so makes a lot of discoveries about the past as well as herself. As the mysteries unravel, it becomes clear that The Toymaker contains little narrative drive to keep us involved in the action. Characters sing long and intricate melodies, but Putnam's generic lyrics rarely catch fire, and Sarah's haphazard toy hunt simply doesn't make for very interesting theater. In this context, the tragic events on stage feel more like tear-inducing gimmicks than anything else. A firmer directorial hand might have helped. Lawrence Edelson's staging seems to make The Toymaker feel even more cluttered, and the cast of twenty doesn't connect with the audience as they should.
All that said, there are some gorgeous moments in The Toymaker. Putnam's music is often lovely, and best of all is the wonderfully theatrical use of jerky human marionettes to portray some of the more violent moments. However, the show is badly in need of a sharper textual focus, and one hopes this production will call attention to its weaknesses and do the kind of reworking needed to make this a powerful piece of theater. —Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 6 at St. Clements.
The irresistible brainchild of the irrepressible Randy Blair, Fat Camp is the most fun I've had at a musical in months. Blair stars as Robert Grisetti, the wittiest kid at a weight-loss camp dubbed (wink!) Camp Overton. From The Parent Trap to Dirty Dancing, a summer camp presents a veritable human petri dish of possibilities, but bookwriters Blair and Timothy Michael Drucker manage to unearth fresh, fizzy humor from cliched scenes of bunkhouse woe. They mine the usual dilemmas— unrequited puppy love; catty cliques; overbearing, perky counselors; junk-food contraband— but they don't jam each moment full of jokes. Camp has always been a place for self-reinvention, but here, the failure to adapt (i.e., lose weight) has dire consequences.
Matthew roi Berger's pop-influenced score is immediately catchy and glitters with vocal pyrotechnics, while Alex Timbers' adroit direction makes the two-and-a-half-hour running time whizz by. But really, it's the cast—the majority of whom are generously proportioned performers with gigantically awesome voices—who give Fat Camp its heart and hard-rocking soul. From Hairspray alum Carly Jibson's incredibly acute comic timing to Cale Krise's impeccably executed idol-worship, this cast isn't just large – it contains multitudes.
In the end, the message of the show both is and isn't a question of size. Fat Camp has placed its performers in a warm, welcoming spotlight, but I wonder: Why haven't I seen most of them in other shows? —Reviewed by Amy Krivohlavek on October 3 at Acorn Theatre.
Superheroes, group therapy sessions and romantic comedy: each has already been featured in many musicals, but Whatever Man might be the first to combine all three. It doesn't mix these elements very well, however: Whatever Man veers from goofy satire to awkward relationship drama to adventure story without ever finding its footing. The musical is the theatrical debut of composer/writer Benjamin Strouse (son of Charles Strouse, who wrote Bye Bye Birdie and other classics), and is a disappointment throughout.
The problems are manifold. To begin with, the premise is difficult to buy. Aimless hero Charlie (Colin Hanlon), who joins a therapy group to save his relationship with his girlfriend (Kristin Maloney), finds himself mixed up in an intergalactic, superheroic struggle of good versus evil. Strouse's rock-tinged score lacks originality, and his book doesn't contain as many laughs as it needs to. Hanlon, Maloney and the other cast members are likable, but seem unsure as to whether to play their characters straight or ironically, and director Hilary Adams' pacing is herky-jerky throughout. With all these problems, Whatever Man has a long way to go before it can be considered a workable piece of musical theatre.
——Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 2 at 45th St. Theatre.
With a cast of thirty, a complex score, and a storyline that seems impossible to musicalize, Hurricane has to be one of the most daunting shows the New York Musical Theatre Festival has tackled to date. The new musical focuses on the 1938 hurricane that shocked Rhode Island and killed hundreds, just one day before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia. Although it's wonderful that such an uncommon musical gets a chance to air out in public, here it is given a disappointingly sloppy production that showcases the show's many flaws and minimizes its strengths.
Chief among those strengths is Michael Holland's score, which is full of soaring counterpoints and choral grandeur. Both music and lyrics also contain lovely elements of 1930s radio as well as traditional musical comedy. On the other hand, Holland and co-author Eric Bernat's book is a mess. They've chosen to dramatize the hurricane through two perspectives: that of the doomed residents of a seacoast Rhode Island village, and the bureaucratic ditherers of the National Weather Bureau. Both angles feel half-baked: the characters are underdeveloped, and their stories lack dramatic tension. Hurricane is further weakened by director Michael Bush's staging, which confuses more than it clarifies. The tone of the piece often changes jarringly from scene to scene, and by the time the hurricane finally arrives in the second act the tragedy has lost its emotional pull. Add in the clunky and ineffective use of eight colonial-era ghosts who act as Greek chorus and later physically embody the hurricane itself, and you can begin to imagine just how muddled this show is. Hurricane may contain some truly promising elements, but neither the script nor the production itself contains the level of craft needed to carry off this unquestionably ambitious piece of theatre. The enormous cast, which includes veteran actress Rita Gardner of The Fantasticks, practically raises the theatre's roof with their vocal prowess, but none of them rmanage to make their character stand out.
Reviewed by Julia Furay on October 1 at St. Clements.