Merle Dandridge and Leonard Robertsin Atlanta
(© Michael Lamont)
Merle Dandridge and Leonard Roberts
in Atlanta
(© Michael Lamont)
Atlanta, the new musical drama now at the Geffen Theater, contains many lovely melodies by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon and some interesting characters, but it suffers from a lackluster male lead, Ken Barnett, and a story (co-written by actor Adrian Pasdar) that dissolves because the focus revolves around his character. In sharper hands, however, this could have been a masterwork about the African-American experience during the Civil War.

Yankee soldier Paul (Ken Barnett) kills a Confederate soldier and steals his identity. The scene moves so fast, however, that it's never made crystal clear if he does this for his own safety or for other, internal reasons. He soon stumbles upon a Confederate platoon led by Colonel Medraut (John Fleck) and his band of slaves, who amuse him by reciting the poetry and verses of Shakespeare. Since Medraut assumes Paul to be the Confederate soldier -- and also a deserter -- he threatens to hang him. But Hamlet (Leonard Roberts), Medrant's alpha slave, saves Paul's life by offering him a post in their band of players.

Paul has little acting talent, but keeps up his charade both on and off the stage. Not only does everyone continue to believe him to be the Confederate soldier, he even corresponds with Atlanta, the soldier's girlfriend. All the characters' secrets come to a head at the end of the summer of 1864, around the time that the city of Atlanta fell to the Union.

Hummon's score blends soulful ballads, zydeco beats, and rockabilly. Several songs are worthy of the pop charts, particularly one sung by the slave Cleo (Merle Dandridge) to Hamlet before begrudgingly bedding down with her master. Hummon also incorporates classic tunes of the time like "Dixieland" as the foundation of some songs.

The libretto contains some stirring moments, mostly between Hamlet and Cleo, while Puck (Moe Daniels) is another fascinatingly written character -- a woman slave who's convinced she's a man. In addition, while there's a major Shakespearean subtext throughout the work, it's unclear if the allusions to Henry IV and Romeo and Juliet are meant to mirror the story or are sprinkled into the script by happenstance.

Without the exception of Barnett -- whose stone face expression, lack of charisma, and flat singing voice all work against him -- the rest of the cast is exquisite. Roberts (best known for his work on NBC's Heroes opposite Pasdar) has a powerful voice and presence, while Dandridge -- a veteran of Broadway's Lion King, Tarzan, and Rent -- wraps her voice around Hummon's most wistful melodies, and makes it clear why every character has fallen madly for Cleo. Daniels is delightful as the puckish Puck. Fleck takes a character that could have easily been a one-dimensional beast and gives him depth, fury, and pathetic loneliness.

Pasdar and co-director Randall Arney make great use of the small environment at the Geffen Theater to transport the audience into the center of the action. Soldiers run through the audience, smoke spills out to the first few rows, and lightning and thunder jostles audiences into submission. The simple, but commanding set by John Arnone guarded by two singed and ripped flags. Riddled about are tangled, dried up trees with leftover nooses from past lynchings. Behind the action lie three scrims that project background art to give audiences a change of scenery.

An ambitious project, Atlanta has promise, a haunting score, and characters worthy of the audience's investment, even if the show doesn't completely succeed.