This past month, I saw 25 musicals in 17 days. Even for me, that's a lot. Eighteen of those shows were at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). As one might expect, many of those shows were either in need of serious revision or were probably beyond repair. It would have been easy to become discouraged about the musical form.But, I actually had a much higher NYMF hit rate this year than last year. Out of those 18 shows, three were outstanding, albeit in need of some tweaks: Julian Po, Legacy Falls, and Crossing Swords. That's about 16%, which is quite remarkable when you think that all these shows are still under development, plus the fact that I'm pretty darned difficult to please.
We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the good folks at NYMF, and NAMT, and The O'Neill, and the Goodspeed, and all the other wonderful programs out there that give new artists and works a chance to grow. If I took anything away from NYMF this year, it's that there are tons of people interested in creating and seeing new musicals. Thanks to NYMF, these two sets of people have the opportunity to come together and celebrate the art form they love.
I was one of the NYMF jurors this year, so I had to chance to weigh in on the Awards for Excellence that some of these shows received. In this, my final roundup of NYMF reviews, I make note below of where I and my distinguished fellow jurors concur, and also where we disagree.
Crossing Swords - Hands-down, the most promising show I saw at NYMF this year, Crossing Swords is a charming modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac. The book, music and lyrics are all by Joe Slabe, a fact that makes the show all the more remarkable. Crossing Swords concerns a student production of Cyrano, which Slabe uses as the backdrop of a more present-day love triangle: boy loves girl, girl loves other boy, second boy loves first boy. We also have the male and female teachers who act as chaperon and director, respectively. Slabe's characters are rich and fully realized in a way that the authors of some other NYMF shows -- Volleygirls and Gary Goldfarb in particular -- could learn from. Slabe has also crafted an accomplished score, full of charming tunes, touching moments, and ambitious counterpoint. What's more, he deftly interweaves song and dialogue, particularly effective in a song at the end of act one that brings all five characters together for a dramatically compelling finaletto.The show has a few problems: the male teacher has a back story about a fallen WWII comrade that doesn't reach fruition. The show seems to imply that the relationship was romantic, but then toward the end of the show, the male teacher responds amorously to the female teacher's kiss. There's also the continued reference to an off-stage character, Hopkins, that isn't quite satisfying. In fact, the resolution of this plot line felt a little trans-phobic, or at least trans-insensitive. Crossing Swords won NYMF awards in direction and music direction. It also won an award for its book, plus a well-deserved outstanding performance award for Steven Hauck as the male teacher. I would also have given the show best music and best ensemble, although the show did receive honorable mentions in both categories. I eagerly await the next incarnation of Crossing Swords, as well as the future work of the talented Mr. Slabe.
Volleygirls - This big winner at the NYMF awards this year was Volleygirls, picking up Best Ensemble, Most Promising New Musical, the "Best of Fest" audience favorite award, among others. The show is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but I didn't find it particularly well crafted. (Book by Rob Ackerman, music by Eli Bolin, lyrics by Sam Fromin.) The scenario is promising: an English teacher at local high school was also once an Olympic volleyball competitor. The principal calls upon her to coach the school's girls' volleyball team, which forces her to confront her embarrassing gaffe at the Olympics. The production featured the rather distracting element of having the entire cast on-stage most of the time, with cast members visibly reacting in ways that seemed inconsistent with their characters. Even more damning were two irredeemably irritating characters -- one, the mother of one of the players, and another, the daughter of the principal -- who are each painted as gross caricatures. The mom is cartoonishly evil, and the teen is insufferably belligerent. (The painfully abrasive song "I'm in Hell" had me audibly agreeing with the character.) Sure, characters can have negative traits, or even be evil, but you have to develop them in a way that's believable. And then, at the end of the show, each of the characters pulls a convenient 180 that's totally out of step with her previous development. One of the main attractions for this production was the always delightful Susan Blackwell, who, despite some evident vocal fry, does not disappoint. But then Blackwell probably just fell victim to the chief mode of communication between all of these characters: screaming, both during songs and during scenes. Clearly, I'm in a minority here, but I can't imagine enjoying any future incarnation of Volleygirls unless it undergoes some significant rewrites.
Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist - This show picked up two NYMF awards: Best Lyrics and a distinguished performance award for lead actor, Jared Loftin. Loftin was certainly a worthy performer, but the show surrounding that performance was a gawd-awful mess. I have no idea what my fellow NYMF jurors saw in these lyrics, replete as they are with reversed syntax, poor scansion, and clumsy attempts at rhyming. (The book and lyrics are by Omri Schein, music by James Olmstead.) Gary Goldfarb concerns the plight of the eponymous Gary and his desire to do his magic act in his high-school talent show. The show clearly thinks it ought to be a laugh riot, but it isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The staging featured tons of awkward comic business that simply didn't land. What's worse, Gary is encircled by an extremely unappealing cast of characters, from his harridan mother, to his rival magician, to the school pretty boy and pretty girl, all of whom actively conspire to make Gary's life miserable. Everyone tortures Gary for being fat, except the girl in the wheelchair, who has a thing for Gary. But the other characters also taunt the handicapped girl relentlessly. Yeah, shows have a right to showcase unpleasant activities, but it wasn't entirely clear to me that the authors weren't enjoying the taunting, particularly during a painfully unfunny song that Gary sings to the crippled girl, called "You'll Never Walk Over Me." (Get it? Oh, I tell you, that's a knee-slapper.) What's more, like Volleygirls, Gary Goldfarb features two characters that change on a dime at the end of the show without the slightest hint of development. Gary's mom, who has unrelentingly derided Gary for his interest in magic, is suddenly the proud Jewish mother when the talent show comes around. And the school bully has a similarly out-of-the-blue...change of team, shall we say? I can't say that I saw much in Gary Goldfarb worth salvaging.
Marry Harry - One of the benefits that NYMF affords to the writers and composers who participate is the opportunity to see their shows performed by Broadway-caliber performers. Ironically, that can also be a liability: It can be hard to determine whether material is working because it's good or whether the pros are giving it more polish than it deserves. Such was, I think, part of the problem with Marry Harry, an amiable but awkward show with book by Jennifer Robbins, music by Dan Martin, and lyrics by Michael Biello. The cast of Marry Harry featured some really strong established performers, including Philip Hoffman, Jane Summerhays, and Annie Golden, plus two really strong newer faces, Jillian Louis and Robb Sapp. Perhaps with a less accomplished cast, the authors might have had more of an opportunity to see what's wrong with the show. Marry Harry centers around a struggling family restaurant and the son who wants to leave to become a chef, not just a cook. We also have the female landlord whose daughter is about to get married, but whose fiance dumps her right before the wedding. The young man and young woman go out on a date and impulsively agree to be married. The rest of the drama hinges on the repercussions of this hasty decision. For a good portion of the show, the story works, aided by some lovely character songs. But right now, the charming aspects of the show are overshadowed by some rather unbelievable plot developments, the worst of which involves the young woman becoming jealous when a female performance artist captures herself kissing the young man on film and uses it in her act. First, the two numbers for the performance artist were woefully out of sync with the style of the rest of the show. But, more to the point, the young women now calls off the wedding, but in a way that feels completely out of character. It felt manufactured, as though act two needed a lift and this was the best the authors could come up with. Even worse was an incredibly offensive song in which a Caucasian actor plays an Asian waiter, singing about the couple in sing-song-y pidgin English. Overall, Marry Harry shows some merit, but it will likely need more prep before it's ready for public consumption.
Castle Walk - Just before my final NYMF weekend, I taught the last lesson in my summer course on the history of musical-theater dance. During the course, we not only discussed the big-name dance greats, like Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, we also discuss the significant precursors and influences, such as minstrelsy and social dance. Two prominent figures in the social dance discussion were Irene and Vernon Castle, largely forgotten today, but who in their time had an enormous impact on popularizing ballroom dance, in particular their signature Castle Walk. When I heard that one of this year's NYMF shows would tell the story of the Castles, I knew I had to take it in. The show Castle Walk takes place mostly during the filming of the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Vernon has died, and Irene is serving as technical consultant for the film, but it quickly becomes clear that the studio doesn't really want her input. The drama in the show comes from the increasing tension between Irene and the film director, as she continues to object to the various liberties that the movie is taking with her story. The frustrating thing about Castle Walk is that is feels so professionally crafted, but it doesn't yet add up to a satisfying show. The book, music and lyrics, all by Milton Granger, never feel less than polished. It's just that he show isn't very exciting. Oh, it's wistful, and heartfelt, but it's also just a wee bit dull. When Irene starts schooling a group of dancers on how to do the Castle Walk, Granger gives a a mini dance-history lesson: prior to the Castles, dance was either stuffy or lewd. The Castles made it elegant and fun. Suddenly I was in, but only momentarily. The production reflected great skill in both the performances and the presentation. Lynne Wintersteller as Irene was superb, with a glorious voice and the ability to convey a great deal of character in even the slightest glance. Both Wintersteller's performance and the show's copious dance were recognized by the NYMF jurors, and rightly so. By the end of the show, I found myself wishing that Granger could find a way to breathe a little more life into his show. The subject matter is certainly compelling. What it needs is a little inspiration.