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

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Ryan Kelly and Dale Miller
in Living With Henry
(Courtesy of the company)
Ryan Kelly and Dale Miller
in Living With Henry
(Courtesy of the company)
Contracting the HIV virus may no longer be the automatic death sentence that it once was, but it still has life-altering consequences as ably demonstrated in Christopher Wilson's new musical, Living With Henry, at PTC Performance Space.

The show tracks several years in the life of Michael (well played by Ryan Kelly), a gay man who doesn't always make the best choices when it comes to men. He's aware of the risks he takes that can endanger his health, but a combination of fear, denial and the possibility of love lead him on a path strewn with difficulties -- but one that also forces him to take control of his life and responsibility for his actions.

The show's title character, played by Dale Miller, is the embodiment of the HIV virus -- a theatrical device that is only sporadically effective. Henry's songs and direct-address narration to the audience work well enough, but too often, Miller as Henry is left standing on the periphery, glowering at Michael and the people in his life.

These include two of Michael's lovers -- Matthew (John Edwards) and Peter (Gavin Hope) -- as well as his mother (Mary Kelly), his best friend Jenni (Lizzie Kurtz), and various others played by members of the ensemble.

Wilson gives a certain amount of complexity to Michael, Matthew, and Peter, but his female characters seem more thinly written. And while his music and lyrics are serviceable for the story he wants to tell, there's no song that you leave the theater humming.

More effective are the sexy and whimsical dances, choreographed by Donna Marie Baratta, who also directs. Standout numbers include "Bathhouse Tango," performed by the men in the cast, and "The Price of Nice," which depicts Michael's exposure to HIV in a manner both titillating and disturbing.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Next Page: Zapata! The Musical


A scene from Zapata! The Musical
(Courtesy John Capo Public Relations)
A scene from Zapata! The Musical
(Courtesy John Capo Public Relations)
Zapata! The Musical, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is a love letter to revered Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, written by husband-and-wife team Ana and Peter Edwards. Taking place in the early 1900s, during the Mexican Revolution, the show dramatizes Zapata's fight for his people's right to keep their ancestral lands.

The committed cast is headed by Enrique Acevedo, who perfectly evokes the gentle strength, compassion, and determination that made Zapata loved in his own time and still today. The musical also focuses on the revolutionary's rocky courtship and marriage to his beloved Josefa (Maria Eberline) and his complicated relationship with his fiery brother Eufemio (Andrew Call), who is more violent and power-hungry than Zapata. Zapata's mother-in-law, Senora Espejo, also plays a vital role as an anchor in the family and community, and is made memorable by Natalie Toro's strong turn.

The show aspires to be a "spectacle," and, by NYMF standards, largely succeeds, with its stylized battle scenes, romantic Mariachi music, power ballads, elaborate traditional dances, wedding celebrations, and a very moving procession of the dead (the choreography and musical staging are by Luis Salgado). A particularly effective choice is the use of a dancer who acts as a kind of dark specter evoking the native spirit during emotionally-charged scenes.

An Occupy Wall Street framing device comes off as rather weak and stilted at the show's beginning, but works far better at the conclusion of Zapata! The Musical, driving home the connection between Zapata's fight for his land then and people's fight for the causes that matter to them today.

-- Brooke Pierce

Next Page: A Letter to Harvey Milk


Cheryl Stern, Jeff Keller, and Leslie Kritzer
in A Letter to Harvey Milk)
(© Billy Bustamante)
Cheryl Stern, Jeff Keller, and Leslie Kritzer
in A Letter to Harvey Milk)
(© Billy Bustamante)
A primal emotional pull may win over audiences for A Letter to Harvey Milk, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, despite its serious flaws, running to the garbled psychology of its focal character, a repugnant secondary figure and lyrics that are sometimes smartly crafted but too often several notches below par.

Taken from a Leslea Newman short story of the same title by librettist Jerry James, composer Laura I. Kramer and lyricist Ellen M. Schwartz, the dramatic musical follows immigrant butcher to the assassinated Harvey Milk, Harry Weinberg (Jeff Keller, giving a stellar performance) as he confronts his demons while taking a writing course taught by relationship-deprived, extremely likable lesbian Barbara Katsef (the always vital Leslie Kritzer).

While his seven-years deceased wife Frannie (Cheryl Stern) haunts him with negative thoughts of ugly intensity, Harry is increasingly forced to confront his resistance to telling the full story of his life and his insistence that for the sake of sheer survival others should never tell certain of their stories, either.

As the creators -- undoubtedly taking their cue from author Newman -- adamantly suggest, it's the need for us all to reveal our stories, whatever they are, that's the urgent and meaningful message. In A Letter to Harvey Milk, the cogent tales involve the Holocaust and homosexuality, a combination that might sound heavy-handed in the summarizing but doesn't prove to be.

The problems in the David Schechter-directed, Michael Raine-choreographed production mostly surface in Harry's contradictory actions as depicted here, in the presentation of Frannie as the worst kind of stereotypical Jewish mother-wife, and in lyrics which at two separate moments laughably mention a woman's hands "that fit together like two peas in a pod."

-- David Finkle

Next Page: The Groove Factory


Publicity image for The Groove Factory
(Courtesy of the company)
Publicity image for The Groove Factory
(Courtesy of the company)
The new musical The Groove Factory, at Theatre at St. Clement's, is a queer riff on Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Unfortunately, the sense of wonder and imagination of the original doesn't carry over to this adaptation, which features a book by Chad Kessler and David James Boyd, with music and lyrics by Boyd.

The story centers on Chazz Goodhart (Tommaso Antico), a young, good-looking wannabe DJ. He leaves behind his Virginia trailer park home, where he cooks up meth with his mother, to journey to New York City to stay with his Uncle Joey (Tony Perry) and get to the hottest club in town, the titular Groove Factory, for a turn-of-the-millennium-party on December 31, 1999.

Kessler and Boyd's dialogue is rather leaden, particularly in the exposition-laden first scene that starts the show off on a sour note. The music is mostly techno and hip-hop, but rarely makes much of an impression. An exception is "Are You Ready?" sung by the female trio Diva McPlanet (Kim Sozzi, Emmy Raver Lampman, Badia Farha), the catchy tune that is interspersed with Chazz's efforts to win a coveted Golden Ticket to the party.

Drugs rather than chocolate are the sweets peddled by the musical's Willy Wonka figure, D.J. D. Vinyl (played by co-author Boyd). And the show delivers its cautionary tale about excessive drug use while still celebrating the club culture that encourages it.

Antico has a pleasant pop tenor, and is a great dancer. However, neither he nor anyone else in the cast can act the roles assigned to them in anything but a caricatured, skin-deep fashion.

-- Dan Bacalzo