A few days ago, I published my first of four batches of capsule reviews from the 2013 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). At this point, I have seen 13 NYMF shows in all, and I will be seeing another 5 shows this weekend, just before the end of the festival on Sunday.
As always with these new-works programs, the results have been mixed. Some of the shows are very ambitious, but don't have the creative chops to deliver on their vision. Others just want to have fun, but the creators have come smack up against that age-old theatrical truism: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
As I've said many times, quality is always the exception. And out of the 13 shows I've seen so far, two of those shows have been of what I would regard as exceptional quality, or showing enough promise to expect exceptional quality once the shows are fully developed. That's 15%, which ain't all that bad when you think about it. One of those shows is represented in the reviews below. The other will featured in my next batch of reviews. Stay tuned for two more review roundups in the days to come.
Swiss Family Robinson - NYMF always seems to have a few family offerings in the mix. If you've never seen the movie or read the book, the eponymous Robinson family has just escaped by boat from Switzerland after the French have invaded. They run into a storm at sea, and are shipwrecked on an island, only to be confronted with a ship of French "pirates" and a mysterious group female naturalists. The show, with a book by Patrick Kennedy and John Kennedy, and music and lyrics by John Kennedy, clearly has ambitions of becoming a large-scale family musical, and while the show needs significant work, overall it felt worthy of additional development. The music has melodic appeal, and there are fun group numbers and some very touching moments, including a song for the Robinson mother and father with a yodeling motif. Some of the dialog feels artificial. One character exclaims, "This must be a deserted island," as soon as they've landed on a beach. Um, how would anyone know that it was even an island from simply landing on a beach, let alone conclude it was deserted? Much of the humor is rather groan-worthy, including a joke about becoming a cheese-maker: "I always thought your story was full of holes." There's also a joke brazenly stolen from Fiddler on the Roof: "May God bless and keep [the French]...far away from us." But perhaps most in need of fixing are the dramaturgical holes. The song motivations are often unclear, particularly for the act one finale. The amazons have captured the family and the French, and start singing something about jungle drums, which is supposed to somehow give us some information about why these mysterious women are there, but the song explains nothing. The act ends with a confusing thud involving one of the sons exclaiming he can explain the mystery. Then at the top of act two, everyone has escaped the amazons, but it's never explained how. The topic only briefly returns as a rather clumsy song cue, but then gets conveniently swept aside. But, again, there's enough promise here for the show to proceed through another draft or two.
Julian Po - Easily one of the best shows I've seen at NYMF so far, Julian Po has a great deal of ambition, and the creators seem to have the chops to deliver. It helps that the NYMF production had a superior cast of Broadway pros, including Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, Sean Cullen, and the delectable Luba Mason. But the piece itself is strong as well, with book and lyrics by Andrew Barrett, and music by Ira Antelis. (Full disclosure: Barrett graduated from the Boston Conservatory, but was never one of my students.) The residents of a very small town in Middle America become fascinated by the arrival of a saturnine stranger who plans to kill himself, but who then proceeds to transform all of their lives. That's a really tricky premise to pull off, but the authors are already tantalizingly close to success. The show features a series of quirky, complex characterizations, and depends upon a darkly humorous tone tinged with irony, and so far the authors are successfully achieving the proper balance. There's beautiful character work in both ballads and uptempo numbers. A few things that need ironing out: the Greek-chorus/singing-band-members conceit wasn't working, partly because the authors haven't yet fully committed to the idea, but also because the band members weren't very strong singers, which was distracting. The lyrics feature some unfortunate clichés, including the dreaded "strength to carry on." The denouement feels like something out of Shirley Jackson short story, which is fine, except there's a confusing tag at the very end of the show, which I still haven't quite figured out. But overall Julian Po is worth looking out for, particularly if the production can hold on to this stellar slate of performers.
Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue Presents 'The Brontës' - Again, dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Here's a show that illustrates both, as it is essentially about the early deaths of the four Brontë siblings: Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. The show is apparently one in a series of would-be comic concerts from DC-based comedy troupe, Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue. With its concert setup and snarky tone, the show seems to be aiming for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Passing Strange, but so far it's not nearly as smart or moving as either of those shows. Where's Alex Timbers when you need him? (Apparently working on every show in the current Broadway pipeline, but I digress...) The conceit: A band of gypsies visit the Brontë household to help the siblings "finish their stories." A promising setup. Unfortunately, the songs feel generic; many are only tangentially related to the story. Every once in a while, we get an integrated number, such as "Haughty Blue Bloods, Naughty Brats," which concerns the experience as a governess of one of the Brontë sisters. But most of the songs could just as easily be in another show, or no show at all. What's more, the quality of the singing was often wincingly bad, particularly when the songs involved vocal harmony. There were times when the intonation was so off that I wanted to plug my ears, but I was seated in the second row of a very small theater and didn't want to be rude. The show features some moving moments, and some humorous elements, but at present there's not enough of either to make for a satisfying show.
Feather - In my previous roundup, I felt guilty for dumping on a well-meaning but quality-deprived effort from a group of musical-theater students. This time, I'm afraid I need to rain on the parade of Feather, a show with extremely worthy intentions, but one for which ambition appears to exceed ability. Feather has a book and lyrics by Jeremy Culver, music by Charleene Closshey, and features additional songs by Nick Everett and Liesl Karlsson. One huge problem with the show it its current form is that the narrative remains opaque until some 25 minutes into the piece. During that time, we're treated to dance performances by young ethnically diverse performers, multimedia projections, a children's choir, and an artist creating a painting live on stage. What we don't get is any specific sense of the story. Shows need to make their point clear, or at least establish their general universe, within the first five minutes. You don't have to provide all the answers, but you at least need to make the question clear. We eventually discover that Feather will involve a very serious story about a married couple, one a photojournalist and one a human-rights lawyer, and the husband's efforts to provide aid for a group of young refugees from the current conflict in Syria. Again, praise-worthy stuff. The show even features a commercial of sorts for Save the Children, which is noble, albeit heavy-handed. But the authors so far haven't done justice to their admittedly worthy subject matter. Even after the plot becomes clear, the show features banal dialog, rudimentary music, and awkward, ponderous lyrics. Sample dialog: "Every day, as I walk down the street, a million dreams walk by each other." Sample lyric: "To who does it matter that I should be fulfilled? To who does it matter that I should choose to yield?" Forget the bad grammar, this is just awkward phrasing, and features a terrible attempt at rhyming. Feather wants to be both a moving love story and rousing agitprop, but unfortunately it succeeds at neither.