by Zachary Stewart
Is America ready for a musical about the Iraq War?
Set primarily "on the banks of the Tigris" (as several hunky soldiers in army fatigues sing in the opening number), Deployed — with book, music, and lyrics by Jessy Brouillard — is the story of Corporal Emily Baker (Janice Landry), who is shipping off to Iraq. The only problem is that her boyfriend, Lieutenant Anthony Wilkes (Bryant Martin), has just come home from the war and doesn't want her to go. In fact, he doesn't want to have anything to do with Iraq since his last deployment, in which he accidentally killed a child. Still, Emily is determined to carry out her mission. When she finds out that she's been assigned to train Iraqi women and speak to the press (essentially as a PR stunt), she's less enthusiastic and takes her frustration out on her sad-eyed Iraqi translator, Laila (Nina V. Negron), who is harboring her own deep pain. (Note: This show is not to be confused with Natalie Lovejoy's Deployed, which is also a musical about the Iraq War.)
An unscrupulous journalist from Paris Match named Patrice Lecompte (John D. Haggerty) offers to use the power of the press to make Emily a star. With salt-and-pepper hair and audaciously tall heels for a dude, Patrice is convinced he's God's gift to women. "It's great to be a Frenchman, surrounded by pretty women," he sings while doing a jaunty dance.
Brouillard is an undoubtedly talented songwriter; many of his tunes have an infectious pop beat. Laila's "Lullaby" is very sweet and sensitively delivered by Negron. The first-act-finale disco anthem, "Dance With Me," which is ludicrously performed by two horrendously wigged American pop stars on a USO tour, is just silly good fun (even if it sounds suspiciously like "One Night Only" from Dreamgirls).
None of it can make up for lyrics and a book that will leave you cringing more often than not. Brouillard (who holds a master's degree in political science from the Sorbonne) has managed to present a very complex war in shockingly simplistic terms, complete with an underdeveloped cartoon villain of dubious motivation. You're not likely to walk away with any new revelations about a conflict with still-developing ramifications (ISIS, independent Kurdistan, ascendant Iran).
Of course, the fact that this subject is a moving target may be the reason why Deployed feels so false. It will probably be decades (if ever) before a musical can say something truthful or profound about the Iraq War.
by David Gordon
Somewhere With You is a strange hybrid of a show, one that's both a jukebox and original musical. Set in the Deep South in the early part of this century, it's the story of two hardcore drug addicts, TJ (Graham Scott Fleming) and 23 (Katy Frame), who meet cute in a house belonging to their redneck meth dealer (Andrew Rothenberg), fall in love, skip town, and try to better their lives. They get clean, TJ joins the National Guard, 9/11 happens, and he gets shipped off to the Middle East.
With a countrified score befitting its Louisiana and Nashville settings, the piece features music and lyrics by JT Harding, the songwriter behind such hits as Uncle Kracker's "Smile" and Kenny Chesney's "Somewhere With You," from which the show takes its name. These tunes do indeed make their way into Peter Zinn's heavy-handed book, some fitting well, others uncomfortably shoehorned in through largely unnecessary or extremely convenient plot contrivances (a character asks TJ to play a patriotic-sounding song, and he responds with Harding's "Love in America"). This is but one problem with the script, which doesn't actually illuminate anything new about addiction or war, and spends too much time feeding us superfluous information.
In the leading roles, Fleming and Frame are a bit too milquetoast to convey a pair of deeply troubled kids from the South. Supporting players, like Jonathan Judge-Russo as TJ's pal Drew, fair better. Multiple Emmy winner Jay Thomas (of Cheers and Mr. Holland's Opus fame) makes a handful of glorified cameos, and he brings enough lightness into at least the first act that it makes the audience truly smile more than anything else in the show. So much dourness can only be tolerated for so long.
by Hayley Levitt
The Twilight Zone meets your worst trapped-in-a-department-store nightmare in ValueVille, one of the Next Link Project selections at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. Directed by Drama Desk Award-winning actress Donna Lynne Champlin, a host of pleasant tunes by composer and book writer Rowen Casey — ranging from hummable jingles to soulful ballads — fill the show, almost to the point of oversaturation as we try to untangle a messy web of a plot.
Eddie, a handsome young man fresh from the NYU MFA program (the thoroughly charming David Spadora), enters the excessively cheerful superstore ValueVille. He stands ready with his orange vest and sunny disposition to commence his first day at work — a temporary Band-Aid, he says, for his current financial woes. The only problem is that his ex-girlfriend Meg (power belter Emily Koch) is also gainfully employed there. The palpable tension makes the work environment a little too hostile for Eddie's liking, though his new coworkers — the obnoxiously raunchy Casanova nicknamed Yeah-Yeah (Karl Joseph Co), the ditsy blonde gum-chewer Stacy (Lara Hughes), and the brassy black Sharonda (Broadway veteran and show-stopping soul singer NaTasha Yvette Williams) — are quite entertained by the soap-opera drama of it all.
Lucky for them, Eddie can't leave ValueVille. In fact, none of them can — at least until the store's maniacal manager Don (Christopher Sutton) and his talented dancing minions (Stephanie Fittro and Willie Dee) say they can. From here, the campy premise weaves in and out of satirical comedy, earnest metaphor, and a mind-bending plot that still seems to be taking shape. We patiently wait for that satisfying moment where all the subtle clues and loose ends come together to unveil the hidden contours of this unnatural dimension named ValueVille. Sadly, we are left hanging with frustratingly few answers, little resolution, and a resilient earworm of a theme song ready to haunt our dreams.