I've never really been a summer person. I get bored at the beach, and I assiduously avoid the sun. Thankfully, summer provides lots of heavily air-conditioned theater-going opportunities, what with various regional houses and their summer offerings, plus the new-works festivals in New York City. Last year, I spent an inordinate amount of time seeing shows at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), both as a critic and as an educator. In fact, we presented one of the shows that I caught at NYMF last summer, Shelter, as part of our new-works program at the Boston Conservatory.
I'll be seeing about 18 or so of the NYMF shows this year, and will be presenting my capsule reviews here on my blog. So far the festival has been full of highs and lows, representing a surprisingly wide range on the quality scale, much wider in fact than I encountered last year. In other words, I've already seen shows that are far better and far worse than anything I saw at NYMF 2012. And I'm not even halfway through. This will be my first of four NYMF review roundups. Look for the others in the days to come.
Songs for a More Funnier World - One of the more promising entries so far at NYMF this year was actually the first show on my docket, this smart little four-person revue by Stuart McMeans and a bunch of additional composers. The show seems to be aiming for the territory of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, or even better, Closer Than Ever. The songs are all about modern life in the big city, with a much more generous dose of gay culture than those previous two shows. Satiric targets include many of the usual suspects: self-satisfied yuppies, men who won't commit, awkward first dates, etc. And the show definitely needs a rewrite or two to iron out some dull patches, to cut some bits that aren't working, and to put more of a satisfying finish on each of the numbers. But there's enough genuine craft here already that I'm encouraged both by future prospects for the show (perhaps an Off Broadway run at Westside Arts) and for McMeans and his composing partners and their future efforts.
The Dead Legend - It feels churlish beyond words to dump on this show, but alas dump on it I must. The Dead Legend is a collective effort by one Michael Gilboe and the musical-theater students from the University of Great Falls in Montana. It seems clear that this was a labor of love on the parts of these students, and they must be quite proud of bringing their original work to New York City. The premise is intriguing: the show takes place at a sort of afterlife after-hours bar, with various dead celebrities dressed as the character or persona with which they are most associated (Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Humphrey Bogart as Rick Baine, etc.). A mysterious stranger dressed in black appears among them, and it becomes clear that in order to pass through to their reward, the celebrities must relinquish their additiction to fame. Again, intriguing. However, the quality of the writing is quite painfully low. The songs have very little structure, many lacking any discernible tune. What's more, the writers didn't even try to capture the idiom of, say, Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe. I applaud these students and their mentors for having the guts to write their own show and raise the money to bring it to New York. But the show itself is unlikely to have any, you should pardon the pun, afterlife.
Life Could Be a Dream - Another highlight from my early festival selections was Life Could Be a Dream, a jukebox show compiled by Roger Bean, the man responsible for the entertaining The Marvelous Wonderettes. Life Could Be a Dream concerns the efforts of four regular guys trying to put together a close-harmony male quartet during the Four Seasons era. The show needs work, but it already has a certain charm, particularly it terms of its vivid characterizations and slick, professional staging. There's a certain inconsistency as to when these folks are performing in character versus singing diegetic numbers, which needs cleaning up. There are some hints at the homosexuality of one of the characters, mostly for comic purposes, but this gets conveniently brushed aside when the guys start vying for the attentions of the female love interest. Whereas act one could use some trimming, act two needs a major makeover, particularly in terms of ramping up the conflict, which dissipates at the end of act one. The second act also needs better song integration. As it stands, it feels like a dull slog through a seemingly forced series of numbers. Act two also features some ponderous, forced dialog when the going gets serious. As I said, Life Could Be a Dream does show promise, but it needs another draft or two before it can be considered in the same league as Bean's delightful Wonderettes.
The Awakening of Angel DeLuna - I can tell a show isn't quite soup yet when I start asking questions like, "Who is this person, and why should I care?" Or, "What is this song supposed to be telling me?" Or, "Why is this character reacting this way?" I asked all these questions and more while watching The Awakening of Angel DeLuna (book and lyrics by Judylynn Smith, music by Lee Ellis), a well-meaning and occasionally touching show that takes place at a formerly family-owned circus. The show starts with a trapeze act that ends badly. Then we see a hobo singing, and it's not immediately clear who he is. It turns out he's the guy on the trapeze, but he looks nothing like the guy who played his younger self, so it was confusing. Angel DeLuna is full of these moments, raising questions as to the motivations of the characters, the purpose of musical numbers, and the believability and meaning of plot developments. The hobo, called Ollie, gets a job with the circus as a clown in the hope of rekindling his love for Angel, his trapeze partner, who's still with the circus. The nefarious new circus owner discovers Ollie's identity almost from the start, yet quizzically allows Ollie to remain. Despite some pedestrian lyrics, the ballads have charm, but the uptempo numbers are almost universally clumsy. The production also makes the same mistake as the current Broadway production of Pippin, featuring acrobatic acts that upstage the intent of the numbers they accompany. And yet, the show has a certain appeal, particularly in the character of Angel, who after suffering a fall from the trapeze, now thinks she is an actual angel awaiting her wings. It sounds twee, but the show handles this particularly well. And the final trapeze moment was extremely touching. So, enough promise here to warrant some more work, but there's much work to do.
Sasquatched - Each year, NYMF seems to include a show or two aiming for the ironic, high-camp status of, say, Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. This year, we have Sasquatched, (music, book and lyrics by Phil Darg), which is essentially about the eponymous creature (tremendously misunderstood, of course), and a young boy who becomes lost in the woods. Surrounding them we have the boy-hunt and concomitant media circus. It's not a bad idea, and the story flows reasonably well. Darg chooses such apt satiric targets as "helicopter" parents and reality TV shows. But then the numbers themselves aren't particularly funny, or are humorous in conception only. And then there's the would-be comic set piece about incidental characters who don't have any lines and are thus reduced to spouting "rhubarb" over and over. What this is supposed to have to do with a show about Bigfoot I can scarcely surmise. The show is also irrevocably hampered by derivative music and painfully repetitive lyrics, although there are fleeting touches of genuine wit in the dialog and staging. Sasquatched also makes the mistake of introducing the eponymous hairy guy himself in the second number of the show with a banal, repetitive, introspective ballad, robbing the beginning of the show of any comic momentum. I get the sense that future sightings of Sasquatched will be rare indeed.Finally, a general note: I have yet to encounter a show at NYMF that didn't fall back on that laziest of lyrical faults: slant rhyme. Even the best NYMF shows have exhibited the tendency to rhyme "girl" with "world," or "drama" with "karma," or "colder" with "over." Have we as musical-theater practitioners completely given up on getting the rhyme right? Must we all slide en masse into the indolent assonance of popular music? As my friend Geoff so aptly puts it in quoting Madame Armfeldt, "Where's craft?"