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A CurtainUp Review
The Total Bent
By Jacob Horn
Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a gospel star and TV evangelist who owes much of his success to the unacknowledged lyrical contributions of his son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood). But Marty has his own dreams, and the winds of social, personal, and cultural change are blowing in his favor. Coming of age in Montgomery, Alabama, as the civil rights movement ramps into top gear, Marty is situated at multiple crossroads: between Americas old and new, between adolescence and adulthood, and between the black gospel/soul tradition and the funk/rock style that would become increasingly mainstream along with integration.
The Total Bent, which is directed by Joanna Settle in its debut production at the Public, is an ambitious musical, approaching a tremendous range of themes with several stylistic approaches and tying them together with storytelling that isn't strictly linear (though it feels like something of an overstatement to call it decidedly "non-linear"). Musically, it excels, but the surrounding narrative, which is at times awkward or chaotic, lacks the fine polish of the songs and performances.
One of the show's strongest assets is its skillfully assembled cast. Hall endows his character with a rough, gravelly quality that offers an ideal contrast with the smooth tone Blankson-Wood strikes as he illustrates Marty coming into his own, becoming increasingly less timid and more forceful. The younger actor's singing style, as well as his fashion sense (as evident in the costumes designed by Gabriel Berry), position him as a prototype for Michael Jackson and Prince in the generation to follow. David Cale, meanwhile, is appropriately indelicate as Byron Blackwell, a British producer with fickle passions and an intense sense of pragmatism.
The supporting roles may involve less speaking, but no less investment of energy. Andrew (Jahi Kearse) and Abee (Curtis Wiley) provide vocal and dance backup to both Marty and Joe. Kearse and Abee spend a substantial portion of the last third of the musical performing practically non-stop with Blankson-Wood. The choreography (by David Neumann) is quite physically rigorous, and by the end, all three are pouring sweat, but they hardly seem worn down. The band is similarly energetic, which they certainly need to be to perform the show's lively, strongly rhythmic score. (The vibrancy of the music is assisted by sound design by Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson and complemented by Thom Weaver's lighting.)
Stew and Rodewald's compositions pay tribute to the styles of the era in which the show is set while incorporating their own style developed through their previous work—not surprising, since the former can be seen to have had a clear influence on the latter. The lyrics are bold and in-your-face (for example, the hook of the opening number: "That's why he's Jesus and you're not, whitey"), and the songs do an impressive job advancing the plot without being overly expository. A cast recording could conceivably be quite successful, should The Total Bent transfer to Broadway.
But, if a transfer were to occur, the narrative that frames all this great music could be refined. At times, ambiguous leaps through time and space obscure the story, blurring of scenes and interactions creates a sense of chaos, and an unsteady streak of meta-commentary jolts us out of the show. Especially given how stuffed the show is with meaty issues, it could benefit from greater structural clarity.
These issues and questions that are raised here in the context of events from half a century ago that are interesting and remarkably contemporary. Joe questions if "gettin' to sit next to a cracker on a bus" counts as freedom, a question with strong resonance given the state of civil rights in the United States today. Marty and Joe interrogate the apparent obligation of entertainers of color, who want to achieve personal success just as white ones do, to also be agents of social change and revolutionary symbols—an issue that surfaces regularly as more light is shined on the continuing lack of diversity in entertainment.
Further, in a plot point that must strike the Public particularly close to home, Marty worries about concert tickets to see a black artist singing music intended for a diverse audience being monopolized by affluent white people. It's impossible not to see a connection the Public's other recent musicals, Hamilton , whose creator and star has had to balance a passion for increasing access to theater with the reality of having a show that is now one of the hardest-to-get tickets in New York.
All of this gives The Total Bent plenty of substance to underlie its style, and all the more reason that clarifying the show's more confusing aspects would be worthwhile. Thanks to its rich, passionate music and spirited performances, it's already a very strong piece, but there's still some fine-tuning to be done before Bent becomes total.
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The Total Bent
Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Joanna Settle
with Marty Beller (Drums), Ato Blankson-Wood (Marty), John Blevins (Trumpet), Kenny Brawner (Deacon Charlie/Organ, Keyboard), David Cale (Byron Blackwell), Vondie Curtis Hall (Joe Roy), Damian Lemar Hudson (Deacon Dennis/Keyboards, Guitar, Harmonica), Jahi Kearse (Andrew), Brad Mulholland (Woodwinds), Heidi Rodewald (Bass, Keyboard), Stew (Guitar, Piano), and Curtis Wiley (Abee)
Scenic Design: Andrew Lieberman
Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson
Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Music Director: Marty Beller
Music Contractor: Dean Sharenow
Choreography: David Neumann
Production Stage Manager: Chris DeCamillis
Running Time: 1 hours and 50 minutes with no intermission
The Public Theater (Anspacher Theater), 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
Tickets: $65; (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at the theater
From 5/10/2016; opened 5/25/2016; closing 6/26/2016
Performance times: Shows take place Tuesdays–Sundays, times vary; check www.publictheater.org for the full performance schedule
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 5/21/2016 performance
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