It will probably come as a surprise to many of my readers that I have never been to the New York Musical Theatre Festival(NYMF) before this year. I mean, I've been almost singularly devoted to musical theater for well over 30 years. I've been teaching musical theater for almost ten years. And I've been blogging about it for over six years. It would seem like a natural fit for me, right?
Well, all I can say is, when I go to New York, it's usually for the purpose of seeing a particular show. I usually decide what I'm going to see before I make my travel plans, and the shows that I see are usually ones that are already on my radar, whether because they're opening on Broadway, or because the shows have people involved who pique my interest. And theater festivals, such as NYMF and the Fringe, are very frequently populated with shows by people who haven't quite made it onto my radar yet.
Plus, there are usually so many shows at these festivals that it's hard to get focused on one or a handful of works worth seeing. So the festivals have always seemed kind of overwhelming to me. And, since I live in Boston, it's kind of hard for me to pop into a show on impulse, as I would be able to do if I lived a little closer to New York.
But this year, I was invited by the good folks at NYMF to speak on a panel about theater criticism, and while I was in New York, I decided to grab a NYMF schedule and just dive right in. This was partly because I've seen everything I want to see on Broadway, and almost everything I could want to see Off Broadway. But I also wanted to cast a net for shows to consider as part of our new-works program at the Boston Conservatory. I was hoping to contribute to in a more meaningful way to this program by lining up some shows in development to consider for a workshop, staged reading, or even a full-blown production.
So, I picked two weekends and set about creating a schedule that would allow me to see as many shows as possible. I just returned from my first weekend, and will be headed back down two weekends hence. Below are capsule reviews of some of the shows that I've seen so far. I'm currently scheduled to see about 16 shows in total. Stay tuned for more batches later this month.
Rio bills itself as a sort of modern-day version of Oliver Twist. The show has book, music and lyrics by Mitch Magonet and Joey Miller, and is an ambitious, if still somewhat inchoate, musical set in Brazil. The show focuses on the street urchin Pipio in his search for his mother amid the hard and violent streets of Rio de Janeiro. The show starts on a bit of a fuzzy note with a maddeningly opaque opening number. In fact, it's not really until 2 to 3 numbers into the show that the story really kicks into gear. Once it does, the narrative is strong and compelling, although the book and lyrics vacillate between harsh truth and stilted cliché. The NYMF production features spirited and dynamic staging, and the show itself is not without talent or promise. The music has a certain buoyant appeal, although the tone of the show is inconsistent: it doesn't really know if it wants to be entertaining or hard-hitting. Perhaps most damning, the show currently features a rushed and pat resolution that ends the show on a falsely positive note that's inconsistent with the setting and tone of the rest of the piece. But there's enough promise here to warrant another draft or two.
You'd never know it from reading the title, but How Deep is the Ocean is a would-be comedy that centers around a man who has been obsessed with chlorine and pool maintenance since childhood. When the beaches on the Jersey Shore have to close due to the pollution levels, our hero attempts to save the day by chlorinating the ocean. Yeah, kind of ridiculous, but intentionally so. The book here is by Pia Cincotti, and the music and lyrics are by Peter Cincotti, and the main problem with the show in its current form is that the score and the book seem to be from two very different shows. The book has a madcap tone, but the score is overly ballad-heavy and comes off far more earnest that the show seems to be aiming for. The situation has comic promise, but the book is only intermittently funny, and the songs rarely are. The show seems to want to be The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but the humor factor is nowhere near high enough to put in in league with that charmingly dotty little show. The essential structure of the story seems sound, although the second act drags on a bit. The show has a sweet disposition, reasonably strong characterizations, and many memorable melodies. But it needs a sure-handed comic director, like a Christopher Ashley or a Scott Schwartz to pump up the humor. (Oh, and the NYMF production features a surprise celebrity guest. I won't spoil the surprise; you can check below in the comments section if you want to know who it is. But, as fun as this moment was, it's unlikely to be sustainable. A guest star of this stature is unlikely to follow the show on its intended journey. This felt like a one-time stunt, and nothing more.)
Quite a few of the shows at NYMF this year seem to be aiming for the quirky-but-endearing mantle, and Flambé Dreams, with book and lyrics by Matthew Hardy and music by Randy Klein, is most assuredly both quirky and endearing. It's the story of a young man who want to become a maitre d' in honor of his father, who died in a freak Bananas Foster incident. For the most part in these NYMF reviews, I'm going to focus more on the works themselves than on the productions, but a lot of what made Flambé Dreams appealing was the extraordinary cast of Broadway pros: Jarrod Spector as the young man, Catherine Cox as his mother, and Jillian Louis, J. Elaine Marcos, and Kevin B. McGlynnas the various people who come in and out of the young man's life as he attempts to become a maitre d' who specializes in flaming desserts, like his father. The show provides strong and memorable characters for these able performers to embody, and gives them a number of genuine laughs and appealing songs. The show loses steam a bit at about 11 o'clock, as it were, but on the whole I'll be interested in watching how this show progresses, and what its creators produce in the future.
Most of the shows at NYMF that I've seen so far have been fairly conventional book shows. The main exception was Show Me Real, a sort of musical theater/dance/film hybrid conceived and choreographed by Clare Cook, and featuring music and lyrics by Amy Burgess, book and lyrics by Gena Oppenheim. The show concerns three female modern dancers as they work together on a dance piece, creating connections between these performers and three Ziegfeld Follies girls in the past. The result was refreshing in its execution, if a tad jejune in its conception. The themes that emerge are about how, despite the different eras that the women exist within, there are strong undercurrents of overlap regarding the struggle, the uncertainty, and the passion for performing. But what made this uninspired concept come to life were the freshness and honesty of the performers, the spirited and visually varied dance segments, and the sense of dramatic balance and closure that Cook brings to the piece. It also made me wonder why we don't see more of this kind of boundary-pushing work. Or, perhaps more to the point, why I don't seek more of it out. I guess that's what's so great about my expanding my focus beyond Broadway and Off-Broadway. Sure, the cream rises to the top. But there's a lot to be enjoyed beneath that commercial surface.