There is an exhilarating and potentially groundbreaking ninety-minute musical trapped within Venice, Matt Sax and Eric Rosen's lengthy, lumbering, dystopian riff on Shakespeare's Othello. Following acclaimed runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (where Rosen is Artistic Director) and the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, this intermittently exciting and frequently confounding rap opera has landed in New York as part of the Public Theater's developmental Public Lab series. Let's hope Sax and Rosen are taking the word "developmental" to heart. With the correct revisions, this musical could be a real stunner.
Instead, as it stands now, Venice is mostly just frustrating, with sudden glimmers of greatness peering through the cracks like shards of light. The ambitious story is set in the fictional war-torn country of Venice in a near future — a world divided following a terrorist attack twenty years earlier that killed 20,000, including the president and the leader of an opposing peace movement. At the center of the story is a man named Venice Monroe (Haaz Sleiman), the son of the slain opposition leader, a hopeful would-be politician demanding freedom and attempting to reunify the divided country in part by marrying Willow Turner (Jennifer Damiano), the daughter of the late president who went into hiding after the attack.
As in the Shakespearian source material, there is an ulterior-motive driven Iago, in the form of Venice's half-brother Markos (Leslie Odom Jr.), a general of the state military that controls the city, and his wife, Emilia (Victoria Platt). There are also vague approximations of a Roderigo, now called Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan-David), the CEO of the company that runs the military operation and "safe zone." And there is a Cassio, Michael Victor (Claybourne Elder), whose naming as Venice's chief of staff sets Markos' evil plot in motion.
A major part of the problem is general confusion. Even if you know Othello backwards and forwards — and Venice follows that play fairly faithfully, though the creators are trying to distance themselves — you'll likely have a hard time following the action. Sax's smart lyrics fly by faster than one can comprehend, especially when he narrates the piece (in a character called Clown MC). As a result, a crucial plot point like Markos' plan of destruction, revealed during a dense and exceedingly well-written-and-performed song called "Last Man," is rendered remarkably unclear. It doesn't help that Rosen, wearing his director hat, bogs down the action in Brechtian distancing techniques, distracting neon lights (by Jason Lyons), and hyperactive choreography (by Chase Brock).
Additionally, this production suffers from the general miscasting of its two leads. There is no chemistry between Sleiman and Damiano, and while he works hard to sell the material, she seems visibly like she just can't be bothered. It's a shame, since the featured players — especially Odom Jr., Platt, Angela Polk (as the entertainer Hailey Daisy), and Uzo Aduba (as Venice's mother), are all first-rate, and the ensemble is talented to a jaw-dropping degree.
Sax's score, arranged and with additional music by Curtis Moore, is certainly the show's hallmark. Intelligent (despite the occasional false rhyme) and at times genuinely thrilling, it has all the trappings of a work that can propel the genre of American musical theater into the future.