Ah, summer. Looks like it's time for a little NYMF-ing. Well, maybe more than a little. I mean, faced with the prospect of 24 new musicals, 9 concerts, 10 development readings, and numerous workshops, I'm basically a kid in a candy store here. This will be my third year at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, my second as a juror. I just spent my first of three weekends bingeing on musicals in development, and I must say that overall I've noticed a higher quality caliber of shows than in previous years.
The good folks at NYMF seem to be doing a better job of selecting more artistically promising shows. Sure, there are still quite a few shows that will need considerable work to get anything close to produceable form, but on the whole, there's better storytelling, stronger lyrics and more mature music than I've noticed in previous years. Now, I have yet to see anything to rival the overall excellence of last year's Crossing Swords or Julian Po, but I do still have two weekends and 12 shows to go. As I have in the past, I'll be publishing three to four collections of capsule reviews. Here's my first batch, in the order in which I saw the shows:
Academia Nuts - My first NYMF show this year was Academia Nuts, a sort of would-be Spelling Bee with book and lyrics by Becca Anderson and Dan Marshall, and music by Julian Blackmore. Academia Nuts centers around a national quiz-show competition, with two teams vying for the championship, one comprising a family of home-schooled Christians, the other a more conventional-yet-still-geeky crew from a public high school. The show is certainly as funny as Spelling Bee, but as yet it's not quite as tuneful or moving. Anderson and Marshall show great promise as librettists: the scenario here is compelling and the book is at times uproarious. (One Evita-inspired pun had me rolling.) However, their lyric writing needs some work. According to their bios, the authors met at NYU in its graduate musical-theater writing workshop. Apparently NYU never covered prosody, as the lyrics to Academia Nuts are a bit too replete with faulty emphasis for my taste ("Play-TOH" for "Plato" and "high SCHOOL" being two notable examples). Blackmore's score is rather tuneless at times, although my reaction may also be the result of the colorless orchestrations and ear-splitting sound in evidence at the performance I attended. Still, in the asset column we have the extremely humorous book, plus some strong characterizations: Jennifer Simard gives the single funniest performance I've ever seen at a NYMF show, bringing a hilarious deadpan to the role of the home-schooling mother and coach of the rival team.
ValueVille - One of the biggest challenges in writing a musical is developing a consistent tone. I've seen many a developing show struggle with finding a unified voice: comedy? tragedy? black comedy? satire? ValueVille is a musical that has yet to fully establish its ideal tone. The book, lyrics, and music for ValueVille are by Rowan Casey, and in future efforts Casey might be wise to take on some collaborators. Almost all of the show's songs are generic, with blandly unspecific lyrics. If you were to just listen to the score, you would have no idea what was going on in the show. But the main problem here is the book, which tries unsuccessfully to shift back and forth between knockabout comedy and grave contemplation. At first, ValueVille appears to be a light-hearted satire of big-box discount stores, but eventually it turns into a sort of tragicomic take on Sartre's No Exit. Casey never really makes it clear as to exactly what's going on. I mean, there's mystery and there's muddle. You're allowed to challenge the audience, but not to baffle them. ValueVille left me baffled. The internal logic of the show is inconsistent; characters react with shock to events that they should already be used to. Casey's book does reflect some intelligence and humor, but by the end the show becomes irritatingly ponderous, with ham-fisted attempts at deeper meaning and bland proclamations about the true meaning of life and love.
Searching for Romeo - Unlike ValueVille, Searching for Romeo has a triple-threat author who seems more than up to all three tasks. This charming show is by Brian Sutton, and it's one of the most promising shows I've seen at NYMF this year. Searching for Romeo is a modern, comic riff on Romeo and Juliet, except from the perspective of two relatively minor characters: Rosaline and Paris. It's sort of like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, but far more light-hearted in tone, and without the philosophical wordplay. Sutton's music is extremely pleasant, retro pop, tuneful and infectious. Sutton seems to have strong instincts about which moments to musicalize, and is especially adept at creating opportunities for multiple characters to sing about the same subject, thus creating engaging duets, trios, even sextets. The lyrics reflect a fair amount of slant rhyme, but in this case it seems defensible in light of Shakespeare's frequent use of eye rhyme. The story is told in a sort of daydream, as a young women drifts off in English class while the class is reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. This presents Sutton with the opportunity of mixing modern lingo with Shakesperean meter and phrasing to deft comic effect. The dialogue features Shakespeare puns and allusions aplenty, which might have been more groan-worthy in less capable hands. The show has some transition issues to work out, but on the whole seems in terrific shape already. The NYMF production featured a particularly strong ensemble of players, including a valiant director's assistant by the name of Dan Drew, who at the eleventh hour stepped into the male lead role, script in hand, when the original actor fell ill. Bravo, dude.
Cloned - Each year, NYMF seems to feature at least one campy mad-scientist musical, usually with mixed results. This year, there's Cloned, and the results are on the whole better than with previous entries in this NYMF subgenre. The book is by Jacey Powers and Dan Wolpow, lyrics by Dan Wolpow, and music by Adam Spiegel. Cloned features a very promising scenario, clever comic dialogue, and strong storytelling. A young scientist is trying to invent a teleportation machine, but accidentally winds up closing himself and others. The show takes a while to warm up, but eventually features some wonderfully humorous sequences. One problem might be the borderline racist landlord character, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but that could easily be toned down. Overall the story works; would that I could say the same about the score. When the music in Cloned isn't bland, it's rather unappealing, sometimes painful. Spiegel demonstrates little gift for tonality here, although the uptempo songs fair slightly better than the ballads. The NYMF production features a very solid cast overall, with three particularly strong performances from John Alban Coughlan as Dr. Marshall, the mad professor; Matthew Knowland as Fizz, the stoner roommate; and Crystal Kellogg as Sharon Stone. Yes, that Sharon Stone. With some work, Cloned could be a winner. Well, if about half of the songs were replaced, or at least got some more euphonious music.
Somewhere With You - Sometimes, when I'm watching a show, I have to remind myself that there's no such thing as a bad idea, only poor execution. Somewhere With You was a major challenge in this respect. The show has a book by Peter Zinn, music and lyrics by JT Harding. On paper here, there's absolutely nothing that I would normally respond to. The score is wall-to-wall country music, a genre to which I have no connection. The characters are essentially white-trash crystal-meth addicts and their ilk, one of whom volunteers for the National Guard and is deployed to Iraq. Not my music, not my people, not my world. So you need to make me care. And I didn't. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the show, other than these were unsympathetic people involved in an increasingly unpleasant series of events. Yes, musicals can feature bad people and tragic circumstances, but you need to have the artistic chops to make it work. The score for Somewhere With You apparently includes songs that have already been hits on the country charts, which is probably why a number of them felt generic. Other songs felt in questionable taste, including one for the resident psychopathic drug dealer about the phone sex he has every Friday night while in prison, complete with scantily clad maidens writhing in the foreground. The book has some significant dramaturgical issues regarding who knows what and when, and features a number of scenes that are of questionable relevance, including a bizarre one-off song about a character who has shot a bunch of Iraqi children. We've never seen the character before and never see him again. I think part of my negative reaction to the show came in response to the exaggerated friends-and-family applause from the audience at the performance I caught. Never a good idea, folks.