[Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the fifth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, playing various venues in Manhattan.]
Matt Gould's Twilight in Manchego, performing at the Chernuchin Theatre, has a beautiful score, epitomized by the haunting title tune that manages to be both melancholy and uplifting at the same time. "Haunting" is also an apt word to describe the musical as a whole --sensitively directed by Billy Porter -- which is in essence a ghost story.
Set in the provincial town of Manchego, the majority of the action occurs in the local elementary school, and depicts the lives of a handful of the town's inhabitants both before and after a tragedy that claims the lives of one of their own. Tony winner Chuck Cooper, as the school's principal, Mr. Teeter, is the clear standout and delivers the quietly affecting solo, "What We Do." Adam Halpin portrays Esau, a teacher new to the school who is running away from his life in the big city and blames himself for both past failures and newly minted ones. It's his journey that seems to be at the center of the musical, but Halpin's performance isn't compelling enough to make him stand out from the rest of the ensemble.
A stronger presence is Jo Gillion (Jessica Phillips), the mother of sensitive fourth grader Leo (Lucas Steele, who overdoes his childlike mannerisms). Valerie Wright adds a little lightheartedness with her portrayal of kindly school secretary Grace, while Natalie Venetia Belcon pushes a little too hard as math teacher Beth. Jenna Coker-Jones nails the part of oddball student Katy, who really can see dead people, and is instrumental in bringing about the show's conclusion.
Twilight is perhaps best appreciated as a mood piece, as the heartfelt songs capture the shifting emotional landscape of the musical. But unfortunately, the characters are thinly sketched, and the book introduces tangential bits of information (for example, financial irregularities at the cheese factory, the homosexual orientation of one of the teachers) that don't seem to have any bearing on the story being told. Perhaps they're there simply because in life, not all details fit together to tell a cohesive story. But in an intermissionless 90-minute musical, perhaps they should.
-- Dan Bacalzo
Fans who know Sally Mayes and Josh Strickland solely from their prior theater work are in for a stunning surprise in Play It Cool, at the TBG Theater, as the pair shows off some extremely impressive jazz chops. But while Play It Cool works wonders musically -- thanks in large part to an infectious score with lyrics by Mark Winkler set to a variety of melodies by different composers -- it disappoints dramatically. The well-intentioned but extremely clumsy book by Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris -- which isn't helped by Sharon Jones' somewhat awkward staging and Lara Fabian's unit club set -- has some still-salient points to make about the importance of being true to oneself, but it still needs a couple of more rewrites to be completely convincing.
The book's copious flaws hardly matter when Mayes is front and center. She almost literally tears the roof of the small theater in sizzling number after number as Mary, the "butch dyke" owner of a Hollywood jazz club in the 1950s that caters to gays and lesbians -- and is in constant danger of being shut down by the police -- and her renditions of "Jazz Is A Special Taste" and "In My Drag" are sure to linger in the memory. Equally important, Mayes gives an emotionally honest portrayal of a woman who has lived one too many lies (including a heterosexual marriage) and is determined to deal with nothing but the truth.
Strickland -- who shows off more of his talent (and far less of his body) than he did in the title role of Tarzan -- proves to be an unexpectedly fine jazz singer (most notably showcased in "Future Street"), while also being totally believable as Will, a 19-year-old "hick" from North Carolina who's shockingly secure in his sexuality. He first ends up in the club after being brought there by Eddie, a slightly unscrupulous Hollywood executive (well played by the handsome Daniel Torres), and ultimately ends up in the arms of Henry (the excellent Michael McGuirk) the married cop who tries to protect the club in more ways than one.
The attractive Victoria Lecta Cave rounds out the cast as Lena, the "doll" singer who eventually forsakes Mary for a sham marriage with Eddie and big-screen fame, and there's a hot three-piece band that also adds to Cool's considerable allure.
-- Brian Scott Lipton
The Jerusalem Syndrome, at 37 Arts Theatre, takes its name from the condition of visitors to the Holy Land who temporarily come to believe they're Old and New Testament figures. It occasionally rises to the level of cute when characters start insisting they're Jesus or John the Baptist or Mary (there are two of them) or Abraham or Sarah or King David (who for no discernible reason speaks with an English accent). What's cute rises to somewhat cuter when librettists Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman sprinkle cinnamon lyrics on the melodic strudels composer Kyle Rosen provides. Rhyming "specimen" with "dress him in," for instance is the sort of playful contribution that experts like E. Y. Harburg, Sheldon Harnick and Stephen Sondheim might admire.
Unfortunately, the show also suffers from poor taste. One sojourning Jewish group is highly reminiscent of the aggregate in Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey but is so stereotypical that patrons could recoil. A homosexual about to sell the cathedral-adjacent property he owns for a gay hotel as retribution for Catholic repression is doing his cause no good. A couple of light-hearted cracks about a Jewish-Arab street-brawl-turned-festive (the word "Palestinian" is never mentioned) is also questionable.
Under the compromised circumstances, Nick Verina as a klutzy tour guide, Liz Larsen as a neglected wife who thinks she's Sarah, and Austin Miller as a soap opera star who turns into Abraham are better than okay. But Annette Jolles has directed the production with no eye towards down-playing the offensive.
-- David Finkle
Cyclone (and the Pig-faced Lady), performing at the TBG Theatre, is a musical of modest charms. Featuring book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein and music by Rima Fand, it tells an ultimately uplifting tale about coping with tragedy and embracing your inner hero. However, even the supposedly "real" people in this comic book-flavored yarn come across as two-dimensional.
The action goes back and forth between the life of comic book creator Sally (Ariela Morgenstern) and her super-powered character Roma (Jodie Bentley), also known as Cyclone, whose adventures occur in late 1920s Coney Island, and are aided by Roma's precognitive but deformed sister Pia (Morgenstern), also known as the Pig-Faced Lady.
Director Elysa Marden's staging is too static and particularly unimaginative when called upon to demonstrate the effects of Cyclone's powers. The use of an accordion lends Fand's music a carnival flavor, which is appropriate, but the only song that really stands out is the finale, "Wake Up to the World."
Morgenstern conveys Sally's obsessive behavior, but is less adept at capturing her later grief. Bentley is perky and sings well, but doesn't have a whole lot to work with in terms of creating a memorable character. Paul Niebanck, as Sally's real-life boyfriend and Roma's comic book love interest Andy, has an understated charm that engages, even if his big number "The Little Things" is almost ruined by his awkward dancing (part of the blame for this should also be placed on choreographer Edie Cowan). David Garry, who doubles as the comic book villain Mephisto and Sally's editor Peterson, gives a flat performance in both roles.
There are a few strong moments in the show, such as a sequence in which Sally listens to the phone messages she received on September 11, 2001 which mark the turning point within the musical. But too often, Goldstein tries too hard to convey her themes to the point where she doesn't give sufficient complexity to her characters.
-- Dan Bacalzo
Jason & Ben, performing at The 45th Street Theatre, is an intimate, generally downbeat two-actor musical that fails to pay off, despite promising moments. Ben (Will Taylor), an aspiring musician in his early twenties, has been dumped on Christmas Eve. Not long after he starts pouring out his hurt to his guitar on a park bench he's joined by Jason (Zach Fischer), a failed musician in his mid-thirties. Once Jason reveals that he works for an indie record label he succeeds at luring Ben to his apartment to continue their essentially hostile conversation and to engage in only moderately less hostile sex.
The musical doesn't provide a sound reason to care about either character: Ben seems motivated only by Jason's vague association with the record business, and Jason seems a condescending know-it-all whose dishonesty is almost immediately apparent. Before it falls apart, the book (by Matthew Loren Cohen, who also wrote the music and lyrics) is at its most credible when mining the intergenerational dynamics between the men. There are occasional flashes of wit, such as when Jason objects to being characterized by Ben as jaded because the word "trivializes observation."
Cohen's songs are mostly fine, capable examples of 1990's Emo pop that would be better enjoyed outside of the show since nearly all of them lack theatricality. The score's lone attempt at humor, Ben's gushy tribute to the charms of Jake Gyllenhaal, is its clear highlight.
Fischer fares best of the two actors, managing some initial seductive mystery and vulnerability despite his character's unpleasantness. Taylor suitably mopes and pouts as required by the script. He succeeds at giving a truthful performance but, under James Beaudry's direction, doesn't find a way to sustain our interest in such a weak-willed character.