Here's my second installment of reviews from this year's New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF). I continue to be impressed at the overall higher caliber of shows at this year's festival. In particular, there seem to be far fewer shows with major dramaturgical problems.
Yeah, I know. Let's break it down. Dramaturgy basically refers to act of shaping a show into a performable piece, as distinct from actually writing the play. A dramaturg is sort of like an editor for playwrights. Examples of dramaturgical problems would include songs that don't have sufficient justification in the story, characters who make choices that we don't fully understand, events that occur without clear causes or antecedents, etc. If a show has you asking, "Wait, what? Who? Where? Why?," then that show has problems with its dramaturgy.
As we'll see in my next installment of reviews, there have been a few NYMF musicals that had me scratching my head at various times throughout the show, but again that number is significantly smaller than in previous years.
Coming of Age - Songs cycles are tricky to pull off. There needs to be a certain cohesion to the material, a clear sensibility to the writing. Oh, and they need to be short. At two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission, Coming of Age is anything but short. Not only does the entire show go on too long -- about an hour too long -- but each of the numbers tends to overstay its welcome as well. The music and lyrics for Coming of Age are by Jon Provan, and his music is not without merit; some of it is quite pleasant, actually. Provan's lyrics are passable when the tone of the song is upbeat, as is the case with a charming song early in the show in which a Jewish girl complains that "nobody gives a shit about a bat mitzvah." However, the lyrics here are replete with enough slant rhyme, faulty scansion, and forced extra syllables to outfit a season of developing shows. When the songs get serious, out come the New Age platitudes and ponderously anthemic vocal lines. The entire show gives off an air of self-consciousness, a security in its own importance. As the title implies, Coming of Age is about rights of passage. However, Provan seems to have mistaken breadth for depth, and includes numbers from a risibly broad range of epochs, including numbers about Norse warriors heading out to sea, a child king about to be crowned, a young Spartan who's reluctant to be trained, and an adolescent Cro-Magnon hunting the wooly mammoth. I kid you not.
Bayonets of Angst - I almost wasn't going to see this one, but I'm so glad I did. Bayonets of Angst, despite the awkward title, is a hoot and a holler. The hilarious book is by Rick Kunzi and Justin Zeppa, and basically amounts to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson without all that annoying emo music. The story is essentially The Civil War filtered through the authors' wonderfully twisted sensibility. If only the rest of American history had been this howlingly funny, I might have paid closer attention in high school. The show begins with the last surviving veterans of the War Between the States, who have gathered for their 149th reunion -- although, clearly, none of them are moving very fast -- and they resolve to tell the "truth" about the war while they still have time. We then flash back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman, but these are very likely not to be the people you're familiar with from history books. Much of the fun here comes from the sure-handed comic direction of Michael Lluberes, who keeps the proceedings going at a fevered pitch for most of the show's 90 minutes. The score is slightly less effective than the book and direction, but that was pretty much the case with Bloody Bloody as well. Another major source of joy here is the supremely gifted cast, flawless to a man (which might seem like a sexist phrase, except that the entire cast is male). The protean ensemble includes J. Robert Spencer (Lincoln), Paul Whitty (Grant), Michael Abbot Jr. (Sherman), Ryan Andes (Robert E. Lee), and Brian Charles Rooney as Gen. George B. McLellan. Rooney is a man with an almost frightening vocal range and character intensity. Someone find this show, preferably with this cast, an Off-Broadway berth. It's just about ready for prime time.
Rescue Rue - Here's another one I wasn't planning to see, but I'm a NYMF juror, and they needed someone else to cover this show. I haven't had very good experiences with musicals aimed at children; people seem to think that a kids' show doesn't need to be well-written. Yeah, well, talk to the guys at Pixar about that. The book for Rescue Rue is by Stacey Weingarten, the music and lyrics by Kate Steinberg, Joshua Zecher-Ross, and Weingarten. A show that could have been twee and cutesy winds up being warm and sweet, even moving. Think Avenue Q without the sex and profanity. Oh, and the irony. Actually, just about the only things Rescue Rue shares with Avenue Q are the puppets and the ingratiating way of telling the story. The story starts with an unnamed dog (who eventually acquires the name "Rue") being kicked out into the world by an uncaring family. She meets up with her Fairy Dog Mother, who grants Rue a wish. When Rue asks for a "Happily Ever After," the Fairy Dog Mother reluctantly agrees (knowing that Happily-Ever-Afters only arrive after many trials and setbacks) and what follows is Rue's bumpy journey to her own happy end. Unlike, say, Freckleface Strawberry, Rescue Rue treats its audience with respect, offering the linear narrative and character consistencies that Freckleface sorely lacked. The resolution for Rescue Rue is so darned cute, not to mention dramatically apt, that by the end I was sniffling happily along with the rest of the audience. There's just the right touch of agitprop here in showcasing the plight of rescue dogs. Well, message received: when I get a new dog this fall, I'm defintely planning on going the rescue route.
WikiMusical - There's always at least one musical at NYMF that thinks it's a whole lot more clever and funny than it actually is. This year, that show is WikiMusical, a deceptive title, in that the users don't actually get to log in and edit the show. (If only...) The book and lyrics are by Frank Ceruzzi and Blake J. Harris, the music by Trent Jeffords. The writing here is sort of on the level of a high-school skit: sophomoric humor, awkward dialogue, and pedestrian lyrics, complete with poor scansion and slant rhyme aplenty. The story concerns two brothers who somehow get sucked inside the Internet, and need to find a way back home. What follows is an aimlessly episodic series of would-be comic set pieces that, despite fleeting moments of wit, tend to fall flat. It's the sort of show that thinks topical references (a scheming Nigerian prince, a cemetery of unsent emails, a climactic game of Mario Brothers) will automatically make it funny. Eventually we get the obligatory expository dialogue from the evildoers, attempting to bring all this muddle to a conclusion, but the denouement is thoroughly inexplicable, rivalling that of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (the first version, before Taymor was fired). The songs feature lots of screaming and reeeeeeealllllly loooooooong noooooootes at the end. As I sat enduring the show, I couldn't help thinking of the actors in these NYMF shows, and the challenge they face of fully committing to material that is not always worthy of their talents. (I happen to know one of the performers in WikiMusical. Pumpkin, I feel your pain.)
The Gig - I was surprised to see The Gig listed among the NYMF offerings this year, mostly because I've seen the show before, some 12 years ago at the Lyric Stage in Boston. The performance rights for the show are available from Samuel French and a cast recording came out in 2008. So, what's it doing at NYMF? I can only assume that composer/lyricist/librettist Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady, Children's Letters to God) thinks the show deserves another chance at the limelight, whatever that might entail. The fact that The Gig has been in development for years is quite evident: the show has a polish that few NYMF shows can boast. It's the story of an amateur jazz sextet, a bunch of middle-aged guys who get together once a week to jam. Along comes a chance at an actual paid gig, and the men take time from their careers (dentist, used-car salesman, real-estate agent, etc.) to spend two weeks in the Catskills. The show starts with an infectious opening sequence that efficiently establishes the main characters and sets the plot in motion. Cohen's score is complex and satisfying, continually taking the music in interesting directions, and reflecting a deft hand with complex group numbers. What's more, Cohen makes these people real and distinct, with easy character-based humor and an infectious sense of camaraderie. Along the way, Cohen crafts charming moments of joy and loss, while successfully avoiding schmaltz. He effectively develops the characters of all six men, while making the supporting characters real as well. That's quite a feat. I don't know what sort of future might lie ahead for The Gig, but I can say it's a terrific show, and that I hope Cohen keeps on writing.