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The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF):2010
An Overview and Review Sampler
By Julia Furay
Shows Reviewed: I Got Fired | Fellowship | Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical | My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding | Things As They Are |Bloodties | Without You |
An Overview of This Year's FestivalThere’s nothing like the New York Musical Theatre Festival, cheerfully nicknamed NYMF, for getting a sense of what the future of musicals is going to look like. If this year’s crop of new shows is any indication, autobiographies are the new watchword in musical theatre.
Anthony Rapp’s solo show Without You, based on his 2006 memoir, is the biggest title of the bunch in terms of media and fan attention. But Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical, Ned Massey’s Bloodties, Keith Varney’s I Got Fired: A Revenge Musical, and My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding from David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff are all based on the authors’ personal experiences.
Other shows in this year’s festival may not necessarily be as outwardly personal, but still look to have an intimate feel, such as Alex Wyse’s Nighttime Traffic, about a man who discovers a way to slow down time while his lover is in the hospital, Karen Bishko’s Therapy Rocks, which tells the story of a cake-obsessed songwriter looking for love, and Trails (from the team of Christy Hall, Jeff Thomson, and Jordan Mann), a show about two friends hiking the Appalachian trail together.
This emphasis on the small-scale and intimate isn’t much of a surprise, when you think about it. NYMF’s crossover successes such as [title of show], Next to Normal, and Altar Boyz have been small productions. Given the difficulty of producing larger shows in this economy, the larger festival productions are always going to have a more difficult road to travel.
That’s not to say that NYMF is entirely comprised of tiny musicals. There are the usual varieties of festival productions, from spoofs (Fellowship!, based on The Lord of the Rings), to developmental productions from big name authors (The Great Unknown from Big River author William Hauptmann and The History of War from seasoned actor Chip Zien), to more family-friendly shows (Frog Kiss and Fingers and Toes).
So whether or not the festival provides any lasting successes, it’s always an intriguing three weeks of new material. I will be covering a few highlights of the festival for Curtainup, rather than trying to see everything. Shows I will be reviewing will be added to this page, last seen and posted at the top (similar to past NYMF omnibus pages), so keep visiting this page for these postings. For further information about other shows, added performances and additional details, check out the Festival website: www.nymf.org.
Curtainup's NYMF 2010 Review SamplerI Got Fired
Imagine a modern-day How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying told from the perspective of one of J. Pierpont Finch’s victims and you have the new musical I Got Fired. The buoyant, snarky workplace show focuses on the circumstances leading to author Keith Varney’s unfair termination.
The show feels timely on a number of levels: workplace comedy has become popular in recent years, thanks to television shows like The Office and 30 Rock and movies such as Office Space. Additionally, the current economic crisis is causing many of us to worry about finding ourselves in the same position. Finally, the show is autobiographical (though partially fictionalized), just like so many of the musicals in this year’s festival. And what could be timelier than that?
Varney, who is responsible for book, music, and lyrics, also acts as narrator and star. He guides us through his office, which had a familial camaraderie until the arrival of the perky, hyperambitious Jenny Tolliver (Kelly Karbacz). As Jenny rises in the office hierarchy, the others there pay the price.
Varney’s book is often quite funny — the quirky office mates (including a foul-mouthed but softhearted manager and a Star Trek fanatic) have some great comedic exchanges, and the cast is terrific in selling their roles. And they’re vocally impressive to boot — particularly Varney, whose voice seems big enough to fill a stadium. On the other hand, the storyline itself is problematic: Jenny is such a hateful, incompetent character that you wonder how she advances at all, and the ultimate cause of Keith’s termination seems a little farfetched. A bit of rewriting here could likely go a long way.
The score needs no fine tuning. It's melodic and inventive, and the lyrics fit in well with the sassy energy of the show (song titles include "You Suck" and "Things Have Gone to S***"). You hate to take delight from someone losing his job, but I’m certainly glad it happened to the talented Keith Varney and led him to bring us this enjoyable new musical.
I Got Fired ran through October 14 at TBG.
And now for something completely different: Fellowship!, a gleeful, endlessly jokey interpretation of The Fellowship of the Ring. The production, from L.A. based comedy troupe The Remarkable Brass Group, is an enjoyable 90 minutes with a strong ensemble cast and a proudly low-budget feel.
Fellowship’s place at NYMF feels unusua. Cclearly this is written for fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, rather than fans of musical theatre. The story begins and ends just where the movie does. To start things off there's h Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party To end it, we have the fellowship breaking up in the quest to destroy the ring. You’d need to have read the original J.R.R. Tolkien book and seen the Peter Jackson movie — preferably several times — to get many of the jokes and references here. (Luckily for me, I did.)
The show was written by director Joel McCrary and cast member Kelly Holden-Bashar, with music by Allen Simpson (who also plays keyboards during the show). But the entire cast is credited as co-lyricist, and the show feels like the brainchild of many different comic minds (jokes range from contemporary sarcasm to vaudevillian puns). The score is attractive, though conventional-sounding and not always very well integrated. The songs slow down the action considerably and lack the wit of the spoken scenes. Nevertheless, their energy and geniality add to the general merriment of the production.
Fellowship! would likely have had more commercial appeal six or seven years ago, when The Lord of the Rings trilogy was front and center in popular culture. For those of us who can still quote the movie, however, there’s plenty to enjoy.
Fellowship! runs through October 17th at American Theatre of Actors (Chernuchin). October 13 at 8pm, October 16 at 8pm, October 17 at 1pm.
Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical
Experimental music doesn’t often make much of an appearance in traditional musical theatre. It makes sense that aural complexity wouldn’t translate easily to a genre that has for the most part attempted to make characters, their stories and their emotional journeys understandable and easily accessible to audiences.
Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical, however, turns that conventional wisdom on its head. Zimmerman, a sophisticated composer who lost nearly all of his hearing in the past ten years, has created a musical rife with atonality, creative use of the human voice and complex musical themes. Though the score isn’t always what you’d think of as pretty, the sound is unlike anything else at r NYMF. It’s an impressive feat, and just one of the ambitious elements of Incredibly Deaf Musical. (For example, not many festival shows offer supertitles for the hearing impaired.) In addition to his score, Zimmerman also authored the book and lyrics. This is a deeply intimate, introspective story that conveys his unusual devotion to music, and how losing this aspect of his personality brought on many personal demons. Zimmerman has broken s his life story into three parts, each of which is portrayed by a different actor:. His initial fascination with music as a child is portrayed by the talented young actor and pianist Pierce Gidez. The up-and-coming years as a composer in New York City are done by Jason Reiff. Paul Amodeo deal with Zimmerman's current deaf state. Along the way, the vocally impressive eight-member cast sings, shrieks, and growls in musical support of this unusual journey.
Despite all its ambitions, Incredibly Deaf Musical occasionally feels a little lacking in terms of craft. Zimmerman’s story feels a bit overwritten: our sympathies for his ironic plight might begin to wane after two hours or so, and there’s an element of self-loathing that gets to be a little uncomfortable after a while. (For example, Jay’s unmitigated scorn for some of his prior projects is a little jarring). Additionally, the book scenes aren’t as dramatically involving as they could be.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of meaty ideas and impressive creativity in Incredibly Deaf Musical. Best of all is the finale, when Zimmerman himself comes to the stage and leads the cast and audience in an energetic and inventive encore number, leaving us with a different kind of appreciation for what music can do for all of us.
Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical ran through October 10 at the Duke on 42nd Street.
My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Some shows are tailor-made for a theatre festival. They are terrific in that context, but seem to wilt without the energy and camaraderie of the festival atmosphere. This seems particularly true for goofy, self-referential and satirical musicals.
Based on its comedic title and production history (the show was a big hit at the 2009 Toronto Fringe), I had assumed My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding would be that type of show. And indeed: goofy, self-referential and satirical are all adjectives that can be used to describe the new musical. But surprisingly enough, the show also contains enough charm, craft and depth to win over audiences in any context.
My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding was written by the husband-and-wife team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff (who also appear as themselves in the production),and is the story of Hein’s Nebraska-born mother, Claire (Broadway vet Liz Larsen) as she moves to Canada and to her surprise, finds herself falling for another woman (Ann Harada). Meanwhile, the struggle for legalized gay marriage in Canada is making real progress.
The production works thanks to several strong elements, beginning with the very outstanding cast. Liz Larsen portrays Claire’s emotional journey as well and comic neuroses with equal skill. Harada has less to do, but is as appealing as ever as Claire’s girlfriend Jane. Best of all is Lev Pakman, who is extremely funny as the younger David.
Another reason My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding works: the book and score. The guitar-tinged music complements and enlivens the story considerably, and even if the lyrics tend toward the obvious at times, they fit well with the spirit of the musical. Hein and Sankoff have structured the show well, mixing in lots of comedy, several joyous moments and even social commentary, giving the show a real-life impact: the "Protest/Short History of Gay Marriage" number is unexpectedly galvanizing. One oddball choice they’ve made, though, is to unnecessarily frame the show within an open-mike night introduction.
So whether or not the production works outside the NYMF atmosphere, it certainly works within its context, and looks to be one of the stronger autobiographical of the many autobiographical productions on offer.
My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding runs through October 16 at TBG. October 10 at 1pm, October 13 at 1pm, October 14 at 8pm, October 16 at 9pm.
Things As They Are
Things as They Are certainly brings famed Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to spunky life. Thanks to a spirited performance from actress Garrett Long, Lange’s talent, determination and energy are vividly on display in the musical about her life and work. Might be too long in and and shortdramatically lacking, but it
But one character doesn’t make a show, and interesting as Lange's life story is, this show takes too long telling it and isn't as strong dramatically as it should be. It needs a lot of work before it can hold its own as a musical. Problems begin with the bizarre framing device: Lange periodically gives us a master class in photography, ruminating on just what photography means to her and how she connects with her subjects. These talky interludes stop the action cold and fail to really illuminate Lange’s character.
Another problem is that Lange’s life is presented in choppy, unsubtle scenes and covers so much ground that it almost feels as if we’re fast-forwarding through Lange’s entire life, with the transition between her first and second marriages coming off as particularly sudden. That said, book writerJohn Dietrich is to be commended, for not shying away from the more controversial aspects of Lange’s life, including her lousy track record as a mother and her tendency to retouch her work (including her famous photo "Migrant Mother").
The music — lyrics by Dietrich and score by Jonathan Comisar—, is stately but staid. : Even with a terrific orchestra and strong singing from the large cast don't deliver the needed sparkle.
The staging is impressive. The stage is bisected horizontally: a huge canvas covers the top half of the stage, upon which is projected an impressive sequence of visuals (mostly of Lange’s real-life photos). The bottom half of the stage is given over to the actors as they tell the story of Lange’s life. It’s a nice idea and quite a technical feat so kudos to director Donna Drake and designer David Niles for pulling it off so smartly. Ultimately, the slideshow overshadows the action. However, since Lange’s obvious brilliance is the most arresting part of the show nothing happening below the slideshow matches the power of Lange’s original work.
Things as They Are runs through October 6 at St. Clements. October 2 at 5pm, October 2 at 9pm, October 6 at 9pm.
We’ve all heard this kind of story before: Had things gone differently, Ned Massey might have been a rock star. He was discovered at a young age by a famed talent scout who died before making good on his promise to make Massey the next Springsteen. Instead of instant stardom, his life became a series of professional disappointments and difficult relationships.
That story is the crux of < Massey’s autobiographical new musical. He is both author and star of the five-person production, a problematic show that feels like a work in progress even by NYMF standards.
It does have its good points, so let's start with those. Massey is indeed a talented musician, although comparing him to Springsteen seems a bit of a stretch. His songs are lively, he’s outstanding on guitar, and he’s a charming performer.
The problem the weak book which is chock full of sloppy, repetitive storytelling, underwritten characters, and obvious plot devices like Massey's frequent messages from God. Director Scott Embler’s stiff staging doesn’t help smooth out the rough edges. The support cast seems a little at sea and uncomfortable in their roles, which might be caused by the choppy dialogue.
The show does have one unfettered delight in the unstoppable voice of Katie Thompson, Massey’s love interest in the production. Here’s hoping we hear a lot more of her singing in the future.
Bloodties runs through October 6 at TBG. October 2 at 5pm, October 2 at 9pm, October 3 at 1pm, October 6 at 8pm.
If you’re a fan of Rent, you’ll likely find a lot to enjoy in Anthony Rapp’s new memoir musical Without You. Based on 2006 book of the same name, this is Rapp's solo show about his experiences as a leading performer in the 1996 smash hit while his mother was battling cancer back in his Illinois hometown. The show is incredibly entwined in the world of Rent. While it features several original songs, most of the musical numbers are from Rent itself. In fact, the production feels more like a riff on Rent than a new musical in its own right.
The story will be quite familiar to anyone who remembers the 1996 theater season. Rapp recreates the Rent rehearsal process, the shocking death of the gifted young composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson on the night before the first off-Broadway preview, and Rent’ s subsequent domination of the awards season and hugely successful Broadway run. Along the way, his mother’s losing battle with cancer becomes ever more painful to Rapp and his family.
The author-performer's storytelling is nicely structured, but doesn’t delve as deeply as we might like. His recollections on Rent, for example, don’t tell us much that wasn’t covered extensively covered in the 1996 media stories. Rapp[s relationship with his mother is admirably healthy and undeniably sweet, but we never really get a sense of the mother as her own person; instead she’s merely a loving and supportive figure in Rapp’s life.
Rapp does proves himself to be a talented lyricist. His narrative is studded with appealing, folksy new rock songs (lyrics written by Rapp; music by him and David Matos, John Kearney and Joe Pisapia) that hold their own against Larson’s still-powerful Rent score. Additionally, Tom Kitt’s new arrangements for some of the Rent numbers are wonderfully fresh. "No Day But Today" in particular, sounds lovelier than ever.
As a performer and narrator Rapp displays the same intensity, charisma and confidence that made his performance in Rent so memorable. He instantly connects with the audience and has no trouble holding our attention and affection. Rapp is a bit shakier, however, when he attempts to embody the others in his life. He's no mimic, and his portrayals of his mother, Rent director Michael Greif and the late Jonathan Larson never quite convince.
Despite its problems Without You works despite its problems, perhaps because of Rapp’s obvious connection with Rent. Sometimes a work of art comes into our lives and seems to play a special role in developing who we are, and how we see the world and Rent seems to have played that role for Rapp and many others. It’s a joy, therefore, to hear him singing the songs that mean so much to him.
Without You is at its heart a celebration of an influential piece of musical theater and a tribute to a mother’s love. The show runs through October 9 at TBG. September 30 at 8pm, October 6 at 4:30pm, October 7 at 8:30pm, October 7 at 11pm, October 8 at 11:30pm, October 9 at 5pm, October 9 at 9pm.