Eric Rosen and Matt Sax's must-see musical combines hip-hop and rap with Shakespearean themes of jealousy and power.
In the show's (barely) fictionalized universe, Venice is a city that has been ruled for two decades by terrorists and corruption. A new leader, General Venice Monroe (Javier Muñoz), has restored order and has welcomed back all those who have been in seclusion for 20 years. Most are returning for the first time since early childhood, including Michael Victor (Erich Bergen), Venice's second in command, and Willow Turner (Andrea Goss), Venice's betrothed.
The plan for peace has one surreptitious obstacle: Venice's half-brother Markos (Rodrick Covington), a vicious two-faced monster who hates his brother's power and influence. While always smiling, he barely conceals his contempt for his sibling. Since he has no real power or influence, he uses terrorism, mistaken identity, and human nature to try to topple his brother. In a twist on convention, it turns out that Markos is the product of loving parents, while Venice is the product of rape.
Like Clay, Sax and Rosen's earlier vibrant work, Venice puts hip-hop into the musical vernacular. The rapping intensifies the character's frustrations while also matching Shakespeare's poetic flow of his Elizabethan prose. The songs are mostly battle cries, but the few slow melodies are as beautiful as the others are commanding. "Sunrise" sets the same mood as "Quintet" from West Side Story, as all the major players prepare for the wedding with different intentions. There is also a beautiful lullaby for Willow and Anna, Markos and Venice's martyred mother (played by Uzo Aduba), that represents the freedom and peace that these two women represent.
Rosen smartly uses mixed media to excite the audience and also comment on the situations. It may be accidental, but when the reporters make announcements from the stage, as well as on large screens, they're slightly out of sync, as if you can't believe everything you're told.
The cast is impeccable, starting with the superb Covington. He is a compelling villain complete with a booming voice that would frighten demons. Goss, Aduba, and Emilia Monroe all have lyrical voices, bringing great heart to their songs. Muñoz conveys the right mixture of passion and naiveté. The beautifully-voiced Bergen doesn't have enough songs to put him on display, but when he takes center stage in the Act II opener, "You Never Wish War On A Man," it's stirring. Angela Wildflower Polk brings a brash rock star sassiness as Hailey Daisy.
Truly, it's this group of performers -- and the material they're given -- that make Venice a trip that has to be taken.