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NYMF 2008 Roundup #1

Reports on Bedbugs!!!, About Face, The Hatpin, and Castronauts. logo
Ryan Bogner, Celina Carvajal,
and Chris Hall in Bedbugs!!!
(© Quinn Batson)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the fifth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, playing various venues in Manhattan.]


Three divas -- two of them male -- ignite the improbably entertaining Bedbugs!!!, performing at the TBG Theater. A cross between Rocky Horror and Xanadu, the show is an exercise in high camp, with a monster movie plot that's beside the point. The real target for the creatives' geektastic parody is 1980s power ballads -- particularly those of the glam rock vintage -- and the breezy music videos that helped cement them in our collective memories. Towards this end, credit director Samuel Buggeln and choreographer Robin Carrigan with an engaging assortment of silly-sexy moves that just keep on coming. Composer Paul Leschen also contributes strongly with a score that is fun and familiar, without feeling too derivative.

Chris Hall -- as a preening, strutting six-foot bedbug you're likely to remember -- is a delicious combination of David Lee Roth and Tim Curry. Meanwhile, Brian Charles Rooney is simply sensational in a thinly veiled take on Celine Dion. No stranger to drag, Rooney -- who sang Lucy Brown in a glorious countertenor in Roundabout's recent Threepenny Opera -- showcases more of his dazzling range, accented with the obligatory French-Canadian and a series of droll vocal stylings. But the real news is Celina Carvajal, a redheaded bombshell who made a pit stop on the Legally Blonde reality series. She's a superstar-in-training -- think Sutton Foster, but with a stronger, warmer voice. The supporting cast also does nice work, with Ryan Bogner a stand-out as Carvajal's short-suffering lab assistant.

Like so many other works of this genre, though, Bedbugs!!! is determined to overstay its welcome. The book (by Fred Sauter, who also did the lyrics) begins as an excuse for frivolity, but gums up the works in the second act. What's mindless fun at 85 minutes feels bloated at over two hours.

-- Adam Perlman


Barbara Walsh and Marc Zimmerman
in About Face
(© Marie Reynolds)

Resetting Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing on an Ivy League campus in the mid-1950's is a clever, promising idea for a musical, but About Face, currently performing at 37 Arts under the direction of Nick Corley, is a charmless, confused disappointment.

The loose adaptation (by David Arthur, also the lyricist) retains the basic relationships of the source material, but while the book's mid-twentieth century versions of Shakespeare's characters are conceptually sound (for instance, avowed bachelor Benedict is now the coach of the school's football team, and sharp-tongued Beatrice is now a literature professor) the dialogue too often reduces the grown-ups' witty war between the sexes banter to a battle between brains and brawn. The result is that Beatrice (Barbara Walsh, engaging and the clear highlight of the production) gets what good zingers there are and is left without an equally quick-witted opponent in Benedict (Mark Zimmerman). The young lovers, here called Claude (Nick Mannix) and Vicki (Aubrey Sinn), fare even less well: stripped of their florid declarations of love, they're no more than stick figures on the page.

Jeffrey Lodin's music is generally as pleasant as the lyrics are variable. But highlights such as "A Good Book" -- Beatrice's first solo number in which she professes to prefer reading to falling in love -- are not enough to compensate for the show's general witlessness. Nor is the welcome casting of Pamela Myers as the school's drama teacher enough to redeem the weak, "forget your troubles" dance number she kicks off in the second act.

The confused tone of this production is most clearly evidenced when the straight-laced college kids don skin-tight black leotards at the school dance to bust out some finger-snapping, pelvis-pumping faux-Fosse moves (choreographed by Mary MacLeod). It may be the most incongruous school dance scene in a musical since the kids in Carrie turned their prom into a disco leather bar.

-- Patrick Lee


Caroline O'Connor in The Hatpin
(© Danielle Lyonne)

If you peruse librettist-lyricist James Millar's foreword to The Hatpin, now performing at the Chernuchin Theater, and learn the musical is based on a story he found in The True Crime Almanac when he was a boy, you're pretty much prepared for what's about to unfold in its own slow-moving time. You're virtually certain that when young and abandoned mother Amber Murray (Alexis Fishman) leaves infant son Horace in the paid care of overly cheerful Charles Makin ((Paul Kandel), his wife Agatha (Cyrilla Baer) and their uncommunicative daughter Clara (Gemma-Ashley Kaplan), nothing good looms.

Suspicions are confirmed when Amber -- now working for man-hating but otherwise loving fruiterer Harriet Piper (Caroline O'Connor) -- is denied seeing Horace on visits that ultimately lead to a trial and a melancholy victory over the Makins and their dark makin's. The work's title is a clue only the terminally dense won't get.

What the audience may not see coming is the pretentiousness of a score for which Peter Rutherford supplies the music. It contains such agitated melodic lines and such quasi-poetic lyrics that the 11 cast members keep nattering on about -- twisting rain and other weather-report-like threnodies. Rarely do the songwriters come at an emotion directly, and too often they offer tunes meant to be delivered at such break-neck speed that the hard-working, po-faced actors -- not helped by director Kim Hardwick -- can't articulate the words. Consequently, the audience has no idea what they're saying.

The high point is a courtroom-testimony aria Clara finally gets to after the audience has been waiting and waiting for her to explode. Her witness-box mad scene is nothing a competent defense attorney would allow, but Kaplan gives it her mesmerizing all.

--David Finkle


Terry Lavell and Candace Reyes Newton in Castronauts
(© Fred Marco)
Castronauts, performing at the Zipper Factory, features one of the most nonsensical books -- co-authored by Paricio Bisso and Academy and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Bobby Houston (who also penned the lyrics) -- that I've ever encountered. Granted, it's told in a "show within a show" format, and not meant to be viewed in a realistic fashion. But with absurd plot twists, thinly written characters, lackluster attempts at humor, and a generic Latin-influenced score (by Randy Courts), the newly minted musical has more than a few problems to work through.

Lolita (Hechter Ubarry) is an aging drag diva who runs the illegal Havana cabaret Club Voodoo and presides over her makeshift family of nightclub workers and actual blood relations. When Fidel Castro (Candace Reyes Newton) pays an unexpected call, Lolita is inadvertently responsible for his death (or so she thinks), causing the entire company to attempt to make a water voyage to Miami in a '56 Chevy. Along the way, secrets are revealed, romance blossoms, and one character is perhaps eaten by a shark, deported back to Cuba, or lands in America and gets a job at McDonalds (all three things seem to happen to him, and its not clear which is true).

Ubarry doesn't have the presence or charisma to properly sell the character of Lolita, but some of the supporting players make favorable impressions. Terry Lavell as the tall, skinny, and aptly named drag queen Amazona has presence to spare; the handsome Guto Bittencourt has a sweet charm as Ricky; and Newton -- playing a second character, named Mercedes -- shows off her beautiful voice in "The Taste of Tears," even if the song seems completely shoehorned into the story. This doesn't redeem the show, but may make watching it more endurable.

-- Dan Bacalzo


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