[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the ninth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.]

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J. Manuel Santos in Rio
(© Jeff Larkin)
J. Manuel Santos in Rio
(© Jeff Larkin)
What Rio, now at The Theatre at St. Clement's, really has going for it is the Mitch Magonet-Joey Miller music with its propulsive pulse of samba and bossa nova rhythms -- especially heard in its sizzling 11 o'clock number -- and the work of choreographers Kate Dunn and Ron De Jesus, who get the show's spirited 12-member cast moving sinuously to those driving beats.

As the title suggests, the musical unfolds in the titular Brazilian city, where the under-class natives live in favelas and only dream of climbing up the hill to a better life. Among them are twelve-year-old Pipio (Nicholas Daniel Gonzalez), who dreams of finding his mother.

However, having witnessed corrupt police officer Ferreira (Lelund Durond) shoot six street children to death, he becomes a pawn in a scheme planned by dealer Samson (Nik Walker). His only protector is Samson's samba-teacher girlfriend Neves (Tanesha Ross).

As one might gather, the work is a not-so-subtle spin on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which is not a bad idea at all. Still, it would have been better if Magonet and Miller--serious as they are about the abuse of children manifesting itself in many societies -- had been less cursory in their transformation of the great novelist's plot. Even more helpful would be songs -- not simply rhythms -- that stick to the ribs.

As for the acting troupe, director Scott Faris appears to have cast them, in this order, for their dancing, singing, and acting skills, with the true sole triple-threat performer being J. Manuel Santos as a small-time hood with a conscience. It's an approach with benefits and its detriments depending on what the members are asked to do at any given time.

-- David Finkle

Next Page: Flambe Dreams


Jarrod Spector in Flambe Dreams
(© Lena Adasheva)
Jarrod Spector in Flambe Dreams
(© Lena Adasheva)
Matthew Hardy and Randy Klein have written a very charming, funny, and surprisingly touching new musical, Flambe Dreams, now at the 45th Street Theatre, that can best be defined for jaded theatergoers by what it does not do: it doesn't reference or parody other musicals (well, only once), it doesn't prize style over content, and it doesn't try to be the next Sondheim musical. It is, in a word, refreshing.

The show is ostensibly about a young man (played by Jarrod Spector) who wants to become a great maître d' like his father, who was killed in a freak Bananas Foster accident, but what it's really about are the crazy ways in which love endures. Indeed, just when you think you know where the story is going, it delights you with its creative zigging and zagging.

Klein's music has verve; it's mostly written in a musical comedy idiom, but there is some pop in there, too. What particularly distinguishes the score, though, are Hardy's lyrics, which both move the story forward and offer quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. There are a number of wonderfully funny songs in this score.

Director West Hyler propels the story with a creative use of space, maximizing the use of the theater's center aisle, and eliciting uniformly excellent performances from his talented five-person cast. Spector effectively plays the sweetly innocent, if psychologically crippled, young hero. Catherine Cox brings both great comic chops and an endearing tenderness to her portrayal of the hero's overprotective mother; Jillian Louis, as the show's heroine, is exceptional as both an actress and singer; J. Elaine Marcos has a kicky personality and scores on two of the show's best numbers; and Kevin B. McGlynn shines in a variety of roles, exhibiting exquisite comic versatility.

In short, audiences that are lucky enough to see this show will receive their just desserts.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

Next Page: Himself and Nora


Jessica Burrows and Matt Bogart
in Himself and Nora
(© Seth Walters)
Jessica Burrows and Matt Bogart
in Himself and Nora
(© Seth Walters)
If you're going to employ the great prose writer James Joyce as subject for a musical, you better be a whiz at words yourself, which sadly isn't the case with Jonathan Brielle, who wrote Himself and Nora, now at The Theatre at St. Clement's.

Although the lyricist-librettist-composer begins his two-act tuner with the word "Riverrun," the first word in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and includes other hallmark Joyce references, like Dublin's Liffey River, and his use, for instance, of the evocative noun "whatness," Brielle unfortunately proves to have a mostly tin ear.

Ostensibly, Himself and Nora is about the love affair and belated marriage between Joyce (Matt Bogart, singing beautifully and giving a valiant impersonation of the self-impressed writer) and one-time chambermaid Nora Barnacle (Jessica Burrows, also bringing stern conviction to her assignment). The pair met on June 16, 1904 and Joyce subsequently used the day as the one on which his long-censored Ulysses takes place.

But Brielle's script, directed by Michael Bush and choreographed by Kelli Barclay, also deals with Joyce's difficulties getting published, as well as his rebellion against -- and possession by -- his Catholic upbringing, with the continual presence of an unceasingly censorious priest (Brian Sills), uttering deprecations and crossing himself.

As presented, none of the histrionic carryings-on demand musical expression. When it comes, the result is often embarrassing. For instance, Nora gets to warble something like "I'm the first thing he's found/That he can't push around." At one point, the couple's offspring, Giorgio (Sills) and Lucia (J. B. Wing), even chant about their plight as literal bastards.

The most memorable ditty, however, is the one where Joyce is teaching English to adult Trieste students (Sills, Arthur, Wing) and not only hurtles through a list song of his many favorite Dublin sites but accompanies his outpouring with an unlikely Michael Flatleyesque jig.

--David Finkle