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A CurtainUp Review

" Ladies and Gentlemen:
We shades of Venice ask you to follow us.
If you dream of peace, follow us.
If you dream of freedom, follow us.
If you know these are not the same thing, well. . .
Are you ready? "

— Clown MC
Matt Sax (center) and the cast of the Public Lab musical. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
I've seen my share of Shakespeare plays at the Public Theater. But but never as a rap and hip hop driven musical. Venice, a very loose take on Othello now at the Public's Anspacher is a far cry from Liev Schreiber's riveting Iago also seen at the Public's Anspacher, though a dozen years ago. Like that production, this one will rank high on my list of most memorable shows.

Eric Rosen's book locates his Othello-inspired characters in a war-torn Venice some time in the near future. Matt Sax has managed to marry the pulsating beat of hip-hoisp, rock and quieter more traditional musical theater melodies. This appealing fusion of musical style plus Sax and Rosen's rap-infused lyrics caused me to rethink my lack of enthusiasm for hip-hop.

For sure, this exciting new musical and its multi-gifted creators (Rosen also directs the show. Sax plays the narrator or Clown MC) confirm my enthusiasm for the Public Theater as the best place to see a variety of interesting, original musicals. This season was particularly fruitful ( February House, Giant and the still running big hit, Here Lies Love )

After a production at Kansas City Repertory Company where Rosen is artistic director, and another at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles, Venice has arrived at the Public Theater with a new choreographer, cast and fine tuned book to bring this imaginative work to full flower.

The Venice locale really isn't especially important or pertinent since this is an epic story that evokes images of disastrous events in any number of cities, including New York and Baghdad.

Jennifer Damiano and Haaz Sleiman (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The show's Venice is a dreary place. No wonder rebellion is brewing against the multinational corporation that's ruled many years ago. The title actually refers more to Since the leader of that rebellion whose name is Venice Monroe (a superb Haaz Sleiman). For the Othello parallel, there's Venice's Iago-like half-brother, Markos Monroe (a finely nuanced and well sung portrayal by Leslie Odom Jr).

Other links to the Shakespeare source include a Desdemona now named Willow Turner (an ethereal yet Jennifer Damiano of Next to Normal fame). The name for this character is a tip of the hat to Desdemona's famous death anticipating "Willow Song" and inspiration for Sax write his own poignant "Willow" for Damiano. Powerful voices are also contributed by the Cassio, Roderigo and Emilia characters, now named Michael Victor (Claybourne Elder), Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan David) and Emilia Monroe (Victoria Platt).

Angela Polk's sexy Hailey Daisey echoes Shakespeare's Bianca. A potent Uzo Aduba shows up regularly as the ghost of the Monroe brothers' murdered mother. But don't look for Aduba's character to show up with the Bard's overused handkerchief device.

Given the basically anywhere setting, Beowulf Borrit aptly limited her scenery to a three-tiered scaffold with steps leading to an otherwise bare playing area. Though that basically bare bones staging is all that's needed, the look of the show is greatly enhanced by Jason Lyons' vibrant lighting, Jason H. Thompson's projections perfectly geared to the Anspacher's three-way thrust, and Clint Ramos's terrific costumes. Of course, what matters most is the cast, the flow of the story and the the music and dancing. Venice is first rate on all counts.

The Rosen-Sax collaboration doesn't just provide a rich menu of musical genres but songs that are used to be dramatically as well as musically effective. Chase Brock's choreography gives some of the actors a chance to display mind-boggling athleticism, but also provides some stunning ensemble scenes propelled by evocative movement.

For all the ties to Shakespeare's drama Venice marches, or rather dances, to its own hip-hop drumbeat. Thus, while a familiarity with Othello probably will add to the enjoyment of the show, Rosen's book stands enough on it's own feet not to be confusing to anyone who's never read or seen the source play.

As Rosen's direction makes the relatively small cast (9 key characters and a 4-member ensemble) come off as a city full of characters. In the same way, the 4-member band, though unseen at the rear of the set's top level, has a full orchestra sound — happily without that hollow, over-miked sound typical of most Broadway shows.

Being part of the Public's invaluable LAB productions, Venice is also an incredible bargain, at just $15 a ticket (no, that's not a typo — it's $15!). The buzz preceding Venice's official opening has already led to a one week extension which means ticket prices during the extension will jump (but to a still reasonable $45). Though the enthusiasm for Vencice may not be quite as 100% as has been the case for Here Lies Love, I wouldn't be surprised if there were more extensions.

Book by Eric Rosen
Music by Matt Sax
Lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen Additional music by Curtis Moore
Directed by Eric Rosen
Choreography by Chase Brock
Cast (in order of appearance):Matt Sax (Clown MC), Haaz Sleiman (Venice Monroe), Claybourne Elder (Michael Victor), Jennifer Damiano (Willow Turner), Jonathan David (Theodore Westbrook), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Markos Monroe), Uzo Aduba (Anna Monroe), Victoria Platt (Emilia Monroe), Angela Polk (Hailey Daisey); Ensemble: Emilee Dupre, Semhar Ghebremichael, Devin Roberts and Manuel Stark
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt
Costume design by Clint Ramos
Lighting design by Jason Lyons
Sound design by Acme Sound Partners
Projection design by Jason H. Thompson
Musical direction by Jim Abbott
Music Supervisor, orchestrator and vocal arranger: Curtis Moore
Dramaturg: Doug Wright Stage Manager Kelly Glasow
Musicians: Jim Abbott, keyboard and guitar; Alisa Horn, cello; Sherisse Rogers, Bass, Marques Walls, Drums
Running Time: Approx 2 hours plus intermssion
Public's Anspacher Theater 420 Lafayette Street 212/539-8650
From 5/28/13; opening 6/13/13; closing 6/30/13
. Tickets $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 8th press matinee
Musical Numbers
Act One
    Citizens of Venice
  • Last Man
  • Waited All These Years
  • Anna
  • City At Sleep
  • Hailey Daisey
  • Sunrise
  • Liberation (Pull Up the People)
Act Two
  • Never Wish War On a People
  • If Only
  • Poison
  • Willow
  • Wings
  • Need to be Great
  • Pu
  • t Out the Light
  • We're Not Children Anymore
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┬ęCopyright 2013, Elyse Sommer.
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