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A CurtainUp Report
The New York Musical Festival (NYMF- 2016)
By Festival Reviewers Elizabeth Ahlfors, Deirdre Donovan, Jacob Horn, Elyse Sommer

August 7, 2016 Update: Another successful Festival concluded with announcements of the awards. The The 2016 NYMF Award for Best Musical was awarded to Newton's Cradle, which also took home the most total awards. Other show we covered that received awards were A Scythe of Time (multiple awards, like Newton's Cradle) and Nickel Mines for best choreography. A multiple award winner we missed was Dust Can't Kill Me.

Shows To Be Reviewed (* An asterisk will be placed before the title when Review is posted): * Lisa and Leonardo | *Children of Salt | *First Church of Mary. . . | |*Icon | *Newton's Cradle | * Nickel Mines | *Scythe of Time |

A Quick Overview by Deirdre Donovan

The New York Musical Festival turns a saucy twelve this year, a tweener with muscle. This festival, fondly dubbed NYMF, is the biggest annual musical theater festival in America. Since 2004, it's presented over 400 musicals and can boast three openings on Broadway (Chaplin; Next to Normal,[title of show] and 95 Off Broadway (notably Altar Boyz, Clinton: The Musical and the currently-running Himself and Nora), with many others migrating to theaters across the country and the globe. The festival, formerly known as The New York Musical Theatre Festival, runs from July 11 through August 7, with its theater venues conveniently clustered in midtown Manhattan.

This season's offerings may well be the most eclectic to date, with a line-up of 18 full-length productions. Although there's no official festival theme per se, you will find that what's presented here speaks to historic events, contemporary issues, and fantasy writ large. There's the gritty Dust Can't Kill Me inspired by America's Dust Bowl years, the timely Newton's Cradle (directed by Victoria Clark) that can rock your attitude on autism and family life, the tragically-tinged Nickel Mines that interprets the horrific 2006 Amish schoolroom shooting with uncommon grace, and the solo musical Eh Dah? Questions for my Father that explores New York City's cultural diversity through the voice of a young woman of Islamic heritage, and A Scythe of Time that adapts two chilling Edgar Allan Poe stories --to mention a few. Aside from its full productions, there's 10 readings, 7 concerts, and 15 special events. But no matter what you decide to sample, no question that you'll be getting a fresh slice of the American musical and sharp insight into its inimitable recipe.

Jessie Mueller (2014 Tony Award-winner for Beautiful and 2016 Tony-nominee for Waitress) is serving as NYMF's Honorary Chair this year. For the record, Mueller cut her artistic teeth on classical musical theater but confessed (to NYMF) that her biggest breaks in showbiz came by collaborating with other artists on bold new musicals.

Curtainup will be grazing at the festival. So keep checking back for our reviews on what's hot, and what's not. Not all events are open for review but you can visit the festival's website for mini-summaries of each offering. No matter what you choose, however, seeing a NYMF show is a bargain at only $27.50.

Happy NYMF-ing!

Newton's Cradle
The golden voiced Victoria Clark has remained behind the curtain for one of the most complex new works at this year's Festival. It's easy to see why she was attracted to both the story and score of this story about a family's dealing with a son who is diagnosed as very bright but with Autism Spectrum Syndrome. The music is reminiscent of Adam Guettel's soaring score for
The Light in the Piazza in which Clark played the Tony winning role as the mother of a beautiful but mentally handicapped daughter.

Newton's Cradle may not contain any hummable show tunes, but like Piazza or Next to Normal (another show about family's struggling with mental disorders that got its start at the Festival) it all adds up to a very moving two hours. Though a further life would undoubtedly require — and get — a less bare bones presentation, that doesn't mean it needs the kind of technical wizardry of the Broadway hit The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight, which also revolved around a character with autism syndrome personality traits.

Until and if this happens, Ms. Clarke has, despite the constraints of decidedly minimal staging, done a remarkable job of helping us to understand the non-linear trajectory through different summers at the Newton family's summer cabin in the Alaska wilderness. We segue back and forth, often in overlapping action: during autistic Evan's early years. . . a summer when Evan at age 25 meets his younger brother and his girl friend . . . the present, when Evan now 29 and apparently functioning well away from the family, returns with a girlfriend he wants to marry.

The mother-son collborators' own uniqueness clearly helped them to bring a more universal theme of outsiderdom of all kinds to Evan's story. Heath is the son of Kim's first marriage to an African-Amercan, but he and his brother Trent were raised by her and her partner (in other words, 2 moms). To further compensate for the absence of stage bells and whistles during this brief showcase run, there's the way this production is in itself a very special family story.

While composer-lyricist-actor Heath Saunders has long been involved with musical theater, his mother Kim's career has been in the corporate world and her shift to writing was as a novelist. But the real young musician Heath met while working in another show proved to be a perfect way for this mother and son to tell it together — and to do so within the genre of musicals focused on serious stories musicalized with a new less song-and-dance focused perspective, and with Heath and his brother Trent, also an actor, to play the Newton brothers.

Newton's Cradle's broad-based theme owes much to the Saunders family's being attuned to what it's like to not fit into a cookie cutter mold, and that even when belonging to a subset of the common mold there are differences within that subset, be it gay, bi-racial, autistic. Happily, the casting of the Saunders brothers is not a gimmick. With his acting, singing and the words he's written, Heath Saunders manages to takes us inside Evan's head and the way he sees the world and the people around him. He can be scary but he's also enormously endearing. Trent Saunders is a charmer as Michael, the younger brother who feels bound to Evan and yet can't prevent a break of many years in that bond.

Rose Hemingway and Rachel Kara Perez are fine as Michael and Evan's lady loves Chelsea and Charley. David DeWitt does a good job with the least sympathetic character, the father who can't see beyond his son's "special needs" status. When it comes to making the show's most powerful songs really soar, top honors go to Andrea Jones- Sojola as Audrey, the mother who answers Evan's persistent "Can I ask you a question" with an unfailingly patient and loving "always." Her "The Sun Will Never Set" and "Lullaby" deserve their second act reprises.

While I didn't walk down 42nd Street humming, I was tempted to pat myself on the back for choosing this as my contribution to Curtainup's Festival coverage. I cetainly won't soon forget the full-throttle engagement of the second act's "The Hunt for Evan" in terms of lyrics, music and drama.

Finally, a special bravo to the 4 muscicians sitting unseen behind a screen-like curtain. The Viola (Blake Allen), Cello (Sam Quiggins), Guitar (Justin rothenberg, and drus/percussions (Dan Weiner) provide a lovely orchestral accompaniment.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at the August 3rd matinee at The Duke
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.

Nickel Mines
One horrendous act of terrorism is examined through music, dance and folk songs and hymns in Nickel Mines. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the Amish West Nickel Mines School. He let the boys and some older women leave and then chose ten young girls, lined them against the blackboard and shot them, killing five and then himself. No blast of gunshot, no killer or weapon seen, only the choreographed moves of ten girls, twisting, falling and finally still.

When it was over, the reaction of the Amish community was forgiveness and love.

This musical by Andrew Palermo ( Allegiance ) with book by Shannon Stoeke and Dan Dyer's music and lyrics, Nickel Mines approaches the tragedy and its aftermath by exploring the effects on family and community. Directed and choreographed by Palermo, the production shifts between the attack, the terrified 911 calls and the struggle of the community trying to follow the doctrines of their faith. The production interprets the anguish and confusion with evocatively graceful ballet and modern dance.

At the top of the show, Morgan Hollingsworth stands out as Samuel, whose resonant "Psalm of Samuel" shows his grief for at losing one of the girls. He cannot forgive himself for surviving and not stopping the carnage. Monologues are relatively brief and songs are a combination of folk/country and hymn/gospel like "All Is Well With My Soul," expressing community members' belief in reconciliation. Yet other moments of despair show a father who cannot relate to his surviving daughter after her sister's murder.

It is difficult for outsiders and also some Amish community members to understand the response of forgiveness for such a harrowing act. Even through their sorrow, they prove the strength of their religion when they visit the home of the killer's grieving parents to embrace and accept them. In their pain, Marisha Castle as Sarah, and Josephine Rose Roberts as the killer's wife and mother move to interact with the victims' families.

Sera Bourgeau puts the cast in appropriately plain Amish dress and bare feet. Howell Binkley provides dramatic lighting and Nevin Steinberg's sound design adds to the sparceness of the production that chooses grace over theatricality to tell this emotional story.

While artistically creative and moving, Nickel Mines falters in not delving deeply into the killer's motivation. This d should be more fully developed if Nickel Mines has an eye on a larger venue.

Running time: 80 minutes
Reviewed at the Duke by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on at 07/29/16 matinee.

Lisa and Leonardo
The High Renaissance comes to the New York Musical Festival with Lisa and Leonardo. (book by Ed McNamee, Donya, and Michael Unger), a musical love story that centers on Leonardo de Vinci and the beautiful young woman he painted and loved.

Although this ambitious musical is likely to raise the eyebrows of s Da Vinci aficionados, it certainly succeeds in resurrecting the iconic artist and tackling that pesky question: Who is the subject of the Mona Lisa?

Authors Ed McNamee, Donya Lane and Michael Unger argue that it's the young free-spirited wife of the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. And in their version of history, set to the enchanting music of Donya Lane with McNamee's lyrics, you are bound to be pulled in and fascinated by the supposed woman who inspired Da Vinci to create his most famous painting.

Here's the legend: The silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo commissions Da Vinci to paint "a simple wedding portrait" of his young wife Lisa. Da Vinci refuses at first but when Lisa visits his studio the next day and discovers a collection of notebooks and incomplete projects, she urges Da Vinci to concentrate his artistic energies and "choose one." Surprised by her intelligence and uncanny insights into the nature of light, Da Vinci has an epiphany that he must paint Lisa as a "grand experiment." Her husband Francesco is at first is delighted. But when Da Vinci falls behind schedule Francesco grows ill-tempered and pressures the artist to quicken his pace.

And Francesco is not the only one in Florence who's losing patience with the famous artist. Leonardo's protége and boy lover, Salai (Ravi Roth), feels slighted and envious of the time Da Vinci devotes to painting Lisa. To retaliate, he offers to paint Italy's greatest art patron, Isabella D'Este from Mantua (Marissa M. Miller). Isabella agrees, though she insists that Salai create an allegorical fantasy of her Court, in which she is Venus and the victor over all her female rivals for Da Vinci's attentions. And that's only the surface of this complex love story that has political intrigues and taps into mythological symbolism.

We also meet historical personages like Machiavelli (Cooper Grodin) and Raphael (Jordan Weagraff), who firmly anchor the piece in the Renaissance. And let's not forget the powerful presence of the Medici family and the military warfare spreading in Italy, all integrated into this piece.

The show's real strength is in its music. And who can resist the musical number that comes ten minutes into the show, "Can You Capture Her for Me?" It's a song that poses those questions that every serious artist must confront when creating a human portrait. Another memorable number is "Oh Leo!," a passionate duet between Lisa and Leonardo, in which the pair surrender to their love.

The big show-stopper is "Fixed to a Star," sung by the ensemble at the finale. Written in tightly-rhymed couplets, this song chimes with the musical's risk-taking spirit and resonates with the tenor of the High Renaissance— or as the lyricist McNamee puts it: "In new ideas, and crazy schemes,/ We'll live inside our foolish dreams."

Lizzie Klemperer (Bright Star) and Timothy John Smith are well-matched as the titular characters. The supporting actors infuse some light comic relief into the weighty events, with special notices to Ravi Roth in the role of the "little villain" Salai and Marissa M. Miller as the manipulative Isabella D'Este.

When it comes to the production values, there are plusses and minuses. Reid Thompson's set is elegant in its simplicity, and combined with Isabella Byrd's poetic lighting, it conjures up a variety of moods. Michael Bevins' period costumes are right on the button. Less effective is Jonathan Cerullo's choreography. Although it's graceful and elegant in design, it lacked crisp execution in certain scenes.

Under the direction of Michelle Tattenbaum, the show could benefit from a brisker pace and cleaner blocking of scenes. Some actors looked a whiff uncertain as to where to move on stage in Act Two, especially at the finale. Still, hat's off to all for tackling this multi-faceted project.

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 23rd at the Duke Theater
Running time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.

Children of Salt
This new Latin musical (music by Jaime Lozano; book and lyrics by Lauren Epsenhart), is a memory play that will be loved by some, and shrugged off by others. Based on the play Los Ninos de Sal, it is a portrait of a 40 year-old entrepreneur named Raul who returns home to visit his sick grandmother and learns a truth from her that transforms his life.

The title is a reference to the biblical story of Lot's wife, who, in looking back at the city she was escaping, was turned into a pillar of salt. No doubt we are supposed to see Raul as somebody who's paralyzed by his past, constantly looking back at the mistakes of his youth–and missed opportunities. Fortunately, his abuela (a Spanish word for grandmother) has a different outlook on life. She hopes to cure Raul of his middle-age crisis by pointing out that the past is the past, and that he has a future, if only he would stop looking back like Lot's wife.

With it's setting in Mexico provides a real taste of Latino culture. The 9-member band on stage punctuates the scenes with salsa music and really ratchet up the energy on stage. With a strong horn section, drums, guitar, and accordion, you will likely find yourself tapping your feet during the show's livelier numbers. Choreographer Stephanie Klemons complements the music with jazzy dance routines that are fluid in their execution and well-integrated into the plot.

Okay, the plot isn't that original. And you can pretty much predict what's going to happen as soon as Raul arrives in the opening scene with a suitcase on a beach in Mexico. Raul is returning to the Mexican town where he grew up, and will reconnect with 3 old friends during his visit. Together they will reminisce on their coming-of-age and those tragic episodes that colored their youth: their rendezvous with a prostitute, one of their friend's overdosing on drugs, Raul's relationship with a girlfriend who left him for another guy. Yes, it sometimes gets overly sentimental. But, fortunately, the good music and songs—twenty-one musical numbers in all—keep this show humming.

So does the acting. Mauricio Martinez inhabits Raul with the right mix of sensitivity and open-mindedness. Martinez has strong musical chops and has plenty of opportunities to show them off here. Florencia Cuenca, as the prostitute Sabina, is also compelling and sings one of the show's most touching musical numbers, "My Mother Took Me to Mexico City." In this song, she relates how she began in prostitution as a child and how her family's poverty perpetuated it. April Ortiz, as the wise grandmother Marina, also consistently delivers. Her best—and most poignant number--is in a duet with Martinez (as Raul), singing the title song "Children of Salt."

This offering, under the painstaking direction of Jose Zayas, brings Latin flavor and a deep sense of family values to the stage. It is an affecting story of an estranged man who goes home to comfort his sick grandmother and ends up with a new perspective on life. It might be too sentimental for some, but the acting, singing, and production values are tops.

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at the Pearl Theatre, at July 23rd press performance. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute's FIFTH ANNUAL Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner
When writer and star Geoff Davin says that The First Church of Mary... is loosely based on an experience he had with a preacher, one can only hope that's quite a loose "loosely"—and, indeed, he assures us as much in his author's note.

The musical, which takes the form of a church function unfolding in real time, centers on the church's preacher, Adamenses Huckster (Davin, in drag, wearing an outfit that could come out of a dominatrix's wardrobe), as she leads the congregation's annual charity fundraiser. The evening of songs, testimony, and fellowship is to be capped off with a red velvet cake and the announcement of which worthy charity will receive a $10,000 donation.

Only there's a problem... or perhaps many problems. There's tension in the choir, where Luwanda (Brooke Leigh Davis) and Ruwanda Johnson (Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia) have had their recently-deceased sister replaced with a work release inmate from a nearby women's prison (Rosemary Fossee). Adamenses's assistant, Charlotte (Megan Murphy Chambers), tires of her poor treatment at the hands of the preacher. The charities vying for the $10,000 are of, to put it lightly, vastly varying quality. And, perhaps worst of all (to Adamenses, at least), the red velvet cake isn't showing up.

While The First Church of Mary... is, for the most part, bitingly satirical, the musical — which features additional music and lyrics by Nicole Boggs, Kelleyann Hocter, and David Mescon—is not without its genuine side. The songs are firmly set in the gospel tradition and include more traditional spirituals along with more suggestive (but not especially subtle) songs about a suspiciously phallic burden and the cursed town of Sodom.

We see abuses of power and witness jabs aplenty at the Evangelical industrial complex, but these are tempered by sympathetic characters whose lives have been positively shaped by their spirituality. Charlotte's story in particular serves as a reminder that many critiques of religious institutions ignore those who would, in fact, be worse off without those institutions, even as her journey also raises the question of how long the pure of heart can maintain that purity.

Davin proves himself to be a soulful powerhouse in his portrayal of Adamenses, but the character suffers from overexposure over the musical's two hours, since the focus on the preacher often sidelines the others. In a show that can sometimes feel slow, the pacing picks up considerably whenever the focus is spread more evenly across the cast, especially towards the end.

Chambers plays spurned well as Charlotte; she plays aggressive even better. As the Johnson sisters, Davis and Whitcomb-Olivia complement each other nicely and demonstrate sharp comedic timing. Their choral work with Fossee is also a highlight of the show.

It's quite the point that Adamenses is ill-suited to occupy the spotlight she seizes so readily, but The First Church of Mary... could, counter-intuitively, make that point more effectively by sharing that spotlight. Making fuller use of this talented ensemble won't make a red velvet cake, but it's just the missing ingredient this musical needs to reach its full potential.

June Havoc Theatre, from July 18-22
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
Reviewed by Jacob Horn on 07/20/16

A Scythe of Time
Dying to be famous? Well, you just might change your mind after seeing A Scythe of Time at the New York Musical Festival. This new musical is a spoof on fame and what people, or rather writers, will do to gain it. Inspired by two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe ("A Predicament" and "How to Write a Blackwood Article"), this macabre musical is sure to make you, if not die laughing, chuckle at the folly of trying to out-dazzle your neighbor.

Here's the story: Set in London in 1881, a fierce rivalry blazes between two editors, Mr. Whittaker N. Blackwood and Signora Psyche Zenobia. Both endeavor to be the toast of London's publishing world — and will do almost anything to be in the limelight. Blackwood, in fact, has concocted the idea of a "Blackwood Article," in which he commissions a writer to stage his own death and write down the sensations of dying. Blackwood publishes the author posthumously, making him the human equivalent of a comet in the night sky. Unsurprisingly, Zenobia is irked by the success of the sensational Blackwood Articles, which threaten to put her magazine out of business. And she retaliates with her own version of a Blackwood Article that takes her to the top of St. Clement's clock tower. And that's all I'll say here--or risk being a spoiler.

Created by Alan Harris (book) and Mark Alan Swanson (music and lyrics), this satiric piece breathes with schadenfreude and serves up horror in the Grand Guignol style. Directed by David Alpert, it is custom-made for Poe-devotees and all who like Gothic fiction, replete with gore and blood-curdling scenes. With a dozen catchy songs to propel the action forward, and splendid acting by its nine-member cast, this show is rib-tickling good.

June Havo Theatre with remaining performances: July 26 @ 9pm. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
A cloak-and-dagger melodrama of old-style operetta, Icon blends a doomed love affair with political intrigue. Against a 1928 backdrop of high wealth and high-spirits, romance and royalty remain the stuff of headlines even when faced with the looming threat of a Great Depression. Such is the fairy tale tragedy of Princess Constance (Charlotte Maltby).

The world is entranced as Constance Neilson, American heiress, marries Crown Prince Cedric (Ben McHugh), from the poor but picturesque principality of Centoluci. The Prince's mother, the Grand Duchess Cesara (Leslie Becker), realizes the need for this marriage of convenience although the Prince already loves his assistant, Franc¸ois (Patrick Connaghan), boding a dismal matrimonial forecast for Constance. Still, this cool blonde debutante is determined to fulfill her royal duties with the help of her cooperative personal secretary, Gualtieri (Tony Sheldon).

Princess Constance sets out to learn all about music and promote the beautiful Alpine country into a center for the arts. She meets and falls in love with a poor but talented musician, Alvaro, played by Sam Simahk. The romance blooms until a rebellion ignites a horrific fire ending their love and Constance, so beloved by her subjects, is gone, remembered only as a tragic icon.

The musical, Icon, also has a second story, four decades and two continents later. In 1969, on the island of Margarita near Venezuela, Marcello, a young journalist (Chase Crandell), researching information of Princess Constance's death, meets a middle-aged piano teacher, Miss Vine (Donna McKechnie). Sebastian Michael's book zig-zags back and forth through the decades and across continents, until Marcello manages to unearth the romantic story. Avoiding a spoiler, let's say the connection between 1928 and 1969 slowly emerges, unraveling through narrative and songs of narrative and optimism, like Alvaro's, "Believe In All You Dream".

Directed and choreographed with verve by Paul Stancato, the stage is surprisingly drab with few props. Against the back screen Kevan Loney's projections reflect the era and the venues but it is Liene Dobraja's gorgeous high-styled Art Deco gowns and fur-trimmed coats that lend the glamour and decor of royalty and wealth. Although McKechnie never dances, a seven-piece orchestra accompanies the lively large cast as they high-kick, two-step, and sashay through 24 original songs by Jonathan Kaldor.
With shades of Grace Kelly, Constance Maltby adds archness to her portrait of a princess who does not quite fit into the royal world but proves captivating with Alvaro. Her singing is fine, although Simahk as Alvaro, is vocally notable with his resonant tenor voice. Sheldon is dedicated as the supportive, Gualtieri, and Becker is an extravagant, demanding Grand Duchess. All in all, however, it is Donna McKechnie, as Miss Vine, after fiercely protecting her personal story, finally ties the events together for Marcello and carries this determined but fluffy show to a feel-good finale.

Running Time 2 hours at the Duke Theater.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on press performance of 07/23/16 Other performances 07/24/16 at 9pm and 07/26/16 at 4pm.

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