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Julian Po; The Pirates of Finance; Volleygirls

TheaterMania's NYMF coverage continues with reviews of three more original musicals.

Chad Kimball in Julian Po
(© Steven Rosen)
Julian Po
by Zachary Stewart

The line was justifiably long for the penultimate performance of Julian Po at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Patrons jockeyed for position in the "general admission" line in order to score a nice seat in the cozy house. If you could survive that, you were in for a real treat: Andrew Barrett and Ira Antelis' new musical, based on the book "La Mort de monsieur Golouja" by Branimir Scepanovic (which was turned into the 1997 Christian Slater film Julian Po), is brimming with blood-pumping American rock and memorable melodies.

True, the story often leaves much to be desired: Julian Po takes place in a small American town of seven. A Strange visitor, Julian Po (Chad Kimball), has chosen this place to kill himself, causing much excitement in the town. Throughout the play, each character has a very special heart-to-heart with Po, leading to life-changing revelations. Eat, pray, love, y'all.

The characters appear in broad strokes, like a New Yorker's fever dream about "real 'mericans." They're awfully reminiscent of the denizens of Snydersville, the fictional town from To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, but instead of the sage wisdom of Patrick Swayze in drag, they have a dumpy suicidal depressive named Julian Po. There's the gun-toting town patriarch, Henry (Sean Cullen), his randy wife, Lilah (Luba Mason), and the closeted gay shopkeeper Tom Potter, (Jason Gotay), just to name a few.

What the play lacks in non-clichéd characters, it more than makes up for in gorgeous, memorable, and challenging music. As the schizophrenic wannabe movie star Bobby, Jon Fletcher sings a toe-tapping country rock song a la Johnny Cash, "What I'm Dreamin' Of." Kimball and Corbin Reid kill it with "Don't Let Go," a driving pop duet sung between Po and Bobby's dissatisfied wife, Sarah. As Pastor Bean, Malcolm Gets performs a stirring rendition of what may very well be the first-ever atheist gospel song, "What If We Wake Up?"

Strangely poetic in its simplicity, Julian Po is worth a viewing, and certainly deserving of a cast recording. Hopefully it will come back through these parts again.

The cast of The Pirates of Finance
(© Seth Walters)
The Pirates of Finance
by Zachary Stewart

Wall Street goes topsy-turvy in The Pirates of Finance, Charles Veley's wickedly witty send-up of investment in the age of robo-trading and toxic assets. Drawing from eight Gilbert & Sullivan shows, Veley has written all-new lyrics to Sir Arthur Sullivan's melodies to create a must-see tale of forbidden love and collateralized debt obligations.

Frederick Freemarket (Preston Ellis) has just inherited fifty percent of a Wall Street investment company from his uncle. Even though they're sitting on $12 billion in derivatives, the company's most precious asset is "the cash machine," a souped-up Bloomberg Terminal equipped with advanced algorithms to process those worthless derivatives into cold hard cash. When evil Hedge Fund Manager J. Geoffrey Behemoth (Christopher DeAngelis) gets wind of the machine, he buys the other 50% of the stock in an attempted hostile takeover. What follows is a battle of free-market principles versus good-old-fashioned piracy. Will they bring the global economy to its knees in this absurd operetta of high finance? You bet they will.

This is a world occupied by couture-clad Wall Street analysts and sleazy pinstriped day traders…all with gorgeous legitimate singing voices. Amber Nicole Guest plays HR manager Prudence Peergroup with expertly feigned professionalism and a ringing soprano. Jacob Thompson portrays CTO Bill Brilliant with a resonant bass and a spatially awkward physical presence befitting a supremely talented system administrator. The latter two carry on a clandestine love affair, shirking a strict company policy but providing for plenty of good moments of intra-office sexual intrigue.

While The Pirates of Finance gives Wall Street a good ribbing, much like a typical Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, it is too gentle in its final assessment to qualify as truly acerbic satire. Indeed, as G&S scholar Ian Bradley wrote for History Today, "[Gilbert] was thwarted in his satirical sallies…by his own timidity and reluctance to offend, all of which had the effect of emasculating and weakening the force of his barbs."

The same could be said of Veley, who ends the show on a pleasant but stakes-lowering note that exonerates everyone onstage despite their fiscal mischief. Dramaturgically it is true to form, but I left the theater wishing for just a little more satirical bite to accompany the irrational exuberance I felt from hearing such outstanding music performed by a first-rate cast.

Susan Blackwell (center) and the cast of Volleygirls
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
by Hayley Levitt

A rag-tag group of high school athletes, an inspirational teacher with a secret past, and a championship game where demons are conquered and reputations redeemed. It's nothing you haven't seen before but that won't keep you from smiling ear to ear for all two hours of Volleygirls, a heartwarming new musical featuring direction by Neil Patrick Stewart, a book by Rob Ackerman, and a fun, energetic score by Eli Bolin (music) and Sam Forman (lyrics).

Susan Blackwell, one of NYMF's most notable alumni (her 2004 NYMF musical [title of show] transferred to Broadway in 2008), stars as Kim Brindell, a high school Shakespeare teacher whose painful past as an Olympic volleyball player is brought to the surface when she is recruited to coach the school's volleyball team. Blackwell brings her infectious, fun-loving spirit to the show as she leads a motley crew of six girls who are in desperate need of motivation and talent on the volleyball court, though none of them lack either of those things onstage. Julia Knitel in particular stands out as the six-foot-tall, hilariously awkward Ingrid who struggles to unleash her "jabali," the inner beast that is key to the girls' volleyball success. PJ Adzima holds his own as the only young male cast member, Xavier, a perpetually over-caffeinated teenage reporter at a neighboring school who provides the play-by-play of the volleyball action. Jennifer C. Johnson also deserves a shout-out for her powerful vocals as Flo Hartline, the overbearing mother of team captain Jess (the endearing Allison Strong).

The musical's most impressive component, however, is its clever choreography by Ryan Kasprzak, who has designed extended sequences of mimed volleyball-playing that manage to capture the energy of a real volleyball match. Actual volleyballs do occasionally materialize, but luckily these performers stick to what they know best.