Here's my third round of reviews, out of four, of shows from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Seeing so many shows in such a short time has been a really rewarding process, one that I recommend to anyone who aspires to write for or about musical theater. Nothing puts the finished product into perspective like a glimpse at the development process. It's also very heartening to see so many people who are passionate about musical theater, on both sides of the footlights.
One somewhat disheartening trend this year has been the rather colorless music evident in many NYMF shows. It's not always clear whether this is a product of the actual composition, the sound design, the orchestrations, or some combination thereof, but I haven't heard much music that I found interesting, intriguing, or pleasant. In fact, on my NYMF juror ballot, I only cited two shows for Best Music, although the ballot allows jurors to list as many as three shows. Otherwise, the music at NYMF this year has lacked flare, tonality, a predictable downbeat, consonant intervals, plus whatever indefinable something goes into making a score memorable and effective.
No, not every score needs to sound like Richard Rodgers composed it, and there is certainly plenty of room for growth in the type of music that musical theater has historically embraced. But style and quality are not synonymous: scores that reflect rock, rap, R&B, emo, country, afro-beat, or any other style of music don't get a pass because they're atypical Broadway. They also need to be good. (Whatever that means, right?)
Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade - As I mentioned in my most recent round of reviews, I had been noticing fewer NYMF shows with significant dramaturgical issues than in previous years. Then, for some reason, I suddenly started seeing a spate of shows that were raising who, what, where, when and why questions. One show that could benefit from more dramaturgical effort is Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade. (Full disclosure: Mother Jones is being produced by one of my recent students, but my students know that, once they graduate, I will approach their efforts with the same tough-but-fair approach I would apply to any other show.) The book, music, and lyrics for Mother Jones are by Cheryl E. Kemeny, and Kemeny might be wise to bring on a collaborator or two: while her music is strong, tuneful, and often rousing, the lyrics here are uninspired and peppered with cliché. The main area needing attention is the book, which is full of holes. The story concerns Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother Jones," a firebrand labor activist and community organizer, and her efforts to call attention to the horrors of child labor in the very early 1900s. The show isn't always clear about where a scene or song is taking place. Are we in a West Virginia coal mine? Or a Pennsylvania textile mill? Or a convent? I was, at various times, confused. This is indicative of a larger problem with Mother Jones: the rationale behind the scenes and songs isn't always clear. Characters make choices that aren't fully justified in the narrative. One character spends most of act one as a cartoonish musical-comedy stereotype, only to undergo an abrupt change of heart in act two. Mother Jones sings a song that's meant to explain her involvement in the Children's Crusade, but the song is about losing her husband and children to yellow fever. It's a powerful song, rendered triumphantly here by the always marvelous Lynne Wintersteller, but it's not really clear what this admittedly horrific experience has to do with organizing unions and abolishing child labor. Mother Jones itself is going to need a bit more organizing if it's going to have any chance of bringing its message to the masses.
Clinton - the Musical - You might think a musical about Bill Clinton would be one long dick joke. And you'd be right. (Get it? Long? Dick? Tee-hee...) That's pretty much what Clinton - the Musical amounts to right now: a two-hour parade of sniggering schoolboy innuendo and vulgarity. There's even a song called "I'm Fucking the Fucking President." And it gets a reprise. The show has a book by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge, with music and lyrics by Paul Hodge, and just about the only inspired choice the Hodges make is to have Clinton played by two different actors, one representing his presidential side, and the other his horn-dog side, although this isn't fully exploited at this point in the show's development. The rest of the show pretty much amounts to a rather flabby attempt at topical humor. The well-known cast of characters here become broad characterizations of the most obvious sort. Al Gore is played by a cardboard cutout. Monica Lewinsky becomes a shallow ditz who sports a stylized cum stain on her dress for more than half the show. Newt Gingrich is a cackling demon: the fight over the big government shutdown of 1995 is represented by a boxing match. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is introduced with a number called - I kid you not - "A Starr Is Born." When the show isn't trafficking in the obvious, it utlizes such past-its-sell-date humor as having the cast sing and dance about the legal definition of "sexual relations" to the tune of the "Macarena." Toward the end of the show, there were a few effective sequences, including one in which the two Bills and Hillary practice together for the State of the Union address in order to remove any possible double entendres. Yeah, we're still talking dick jokes, but there was at least some craft behind it. The Hillary character also gets a fairly effective, even moving, 11 o'clock number in which she finally confronts Bill about all the lying and infidelity. But, on the whole, Clinton is rather flaccid. (Which, BTW Messrs. Hodge, is traditionally pronounced "flack-sid," not "flassid.")
The Snow Queen - Most of the shows at NYMF are on a pretty tight budget, so the physical production values tend to be modest. The show with the best design this year was The Snow Queen, which is based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson. The costumes, projections, even the show's logo represent a top-notch sense of overall design. Now, all that sharp stagecraft needs is a better show to support. The book here is by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo, the music by Haddon Kime and Rick Lombardo, the lyrics by Brandt, Kime, and Lombardo. The show seems to have Peter and the Starcatcher ambitions, with a sort of objet trouvé feel, a stage full of actor/musicians, and various attempts at suggested versus literal stagecraft. Right now, though, The Snow Queen lacks the spark and sense of riotous fun that Peter and the Starcatcher so vividly reflected. The story concerns two chIldhood friends, Kai and Gerde. Kai falls under the spell of the Snow Queen and follows her to her icy lair, and Gerde sets off the find him. Along the way, she meets a succession of would-be vivid comic characters, but only a few of these characterizations were fully successful. The ensemble cast is mostly quite strong, although there was some scenery chewing going on. The show has significant dramaturgy problems at present: when the show starts, it's unclear whether the Snow Queen or another character, the Troll, would eventually become the antagonist. Are these two characters in cahoots, or are they separate malevolent forces? Later, when Kai first encounters the Snow Queen, he suddenly becomes obsessed with counting. Eventually we learn that this has a purpose, but it was quizzical at the time. But the main liability here is the score, which is thoroughly unappealing, a wall of undifferentiated sound that makes it difficult to understand most of the lyrics. This may be partly due to poor sound design and muddy orchestrations, but whatever the cause, the music comes off as an amorphous emo drone. I'm sure the composer is going for something modern and outré, but this is a kids show, and children haven't yet developed the parts of their brains that can appreciate dissonance. That's why most children's music features perfect intervals. I think there's a solid show in the making here, but the music is going to need a significant overhaul.
Zombie Strippers - With a show named Zombie Strippers, it can go one of two ways: brilliant camp or forced, self-conscious muddle. Zombie Strippers is much closer to the latter, and even at only 65 minutes, significantly overstays its welcome. As the title implies, Zombie Strippers is about a trio of strippers who...well...become zombies. A mourning coworker visits the graveyard with her douchebag boyfriend, which sets the plot in motion. The book, music, and lyrics by Mark LaPierre, and really the only thing here that's promising are LaPierre's lyrics, which show some talent for word play and occasional flashes of genuine wit. But there are some lyrics that just don't make any sense, for instance, "Life is like a play. It's depressing and unfair." Um, is that really what plays are? More likely this is simply due to faulty modification, but clarity is part of the craft, folks. At times, it's not entirely clear that the characters are aware of what they're saying. In one song, the two key females are supposed to be revealing something significant about themselves, but one character actually says nothing new, meanwhile seemingly ignoring a major reveal on the part of the other character. The music here, canned and live electronic synth, is far too languid for a purportedly comic show. LaPierre frequently undercuts the comedy of his lyrics by crafting extended vocal lines that kill that joke. Like many of this year's NYMF composers, La Pierre seems to be deliberately avoiding tonality, which makes for an unpleasant aural experience. Just because the show is about zombies doesn't mean the audience should be in pain. As for the book, it's not clear that the show even understands, let alone reflects, its internal rules about what creates these zombies or how to kill them. Even a show with a ridiculous premise needs to have an internal logic; any sci-fi fan will tell you that. I get the feeling that Zombie Strippers, unlike its titillating titular characters, isn't looking at much of an afterlife.