NYMF 2014: Madame Infamy; Propaganda! The Musical; WikiMusical
This is TheaterMania's fifth and final roundup of reviews from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
by Zachary Stewart
What do Sally Hemings and Marie Antoinette have in common? One wouldn't naturally connect Thomas Jefferson's longtime mistress (and slave) with the decapitated Queen of France, but that is exactly what JP Vigliotti, Cardozie Jones, and Sean Willis have done in Madame Infamy.
The show begins with Sally (Bashirrah Creswell) thrilled at the prospect of accompanying Polly Jefferson to France, where her father Thomas (Kevin Massey) is serving as ambassador from the newly formed United States. When she arrives in Paris, Jefferson immediately becomes infatuated, noticing the resemblance between Sally and his dead wife (who was her half-sister). "Plantation life can be complicated," he tells her shortly before they begin a decades-long relationship.
Meanwhile on stage right, Marie Antoinette (Briana Carlson-Goodman) is less thrilled about shipping off to France to become the Dauphine. She marries Louis XVI (a spot-on awkward Jake Levitt) and soon becomes queen when he ascends to the throne. Louis is timid, but through a combination of patience and appeals to his sweet tooth, Antoinette is able to do her queenly duty of producing an heir. But with revolution in the air, can the French Monarchy survive? (SPOILER ALERT: It doesn't.)
The two women cross paths only once, at a grand ball in Versailles that serves as the first-act finale. Even then, they never share words. They're mostly tied together by their correspondence with wax artist Marie Tussaud (Rachel Stern and her big, rich voice), herself an independent woman in the business of immortality.
Jones and Willis have created a driving rock score with soaring melodies that allow this very talented cast to show off. As Sally's brother James, Justin Johnston brings the house down with his 11-o'clock number.
Still, beyond the vague notion of girl power in a time of extreme patriarchy, the connection between Hemings and Antoinette remains tenuous, at best. Also, the scenes depicting the frolicking, happy-go-lucky slaves of Monticello are worthy of a facepalm.
This sensitive and emotionally intuitive composing team would do better to lend their distinctive musical voice to a more focused story that doesn't feel like an intellectual exercise in biographical synthesis.
by Hayley Levitt
Lies, coverups, and musical interludes are just another day in the office for Propaganda! The Musical, directed by Nathan Brewer. With a camp-stuffed book and serviceable score by Taylor Ferrera and Matthew Webster, the story sends us to a federal bureau staffed with a team of overenthusiastic workers in charge of covering up the country's most high-profile scandals.
The bureau's patriarch, whom all the employees call Grandpa (played by Kenny Morris), dies mysteriously, leaving the family business to his incompetent mooch of a grandson, aptly named Rookie. Dale Sampson leads the cast as this unconventional leading man — a flamboyantly gay office novice who, nonetheless, wins the heart of his desperate female coworker Tary (as in secre-Tary), played by the bubbly Beth Cheryl Tarnow.
Now mentored by the wise older employee Harry (also played by Morris), Rookie decides to cover up the latest presidential scandal with a distracting song-and-dance spectacle about the most infamous presidential scandal in history: Watergate The Musical (a title I wouldn't be shocked to see on next year's NYMF roster). As he works tirelessly to make this infallible plan a success, the scorned bureau employee Agent X, who was passed up for promotion after Grandpa's death, plots to take down the musical and take over the bureau. Kenita R. Miller is the shining star of the production as this evil villainess, adding powerful vocals and a little subdued comedy to the slightly overeager production. The show mines much of its humor from its steady stream of self-referential jokes — an attempt to create a musical parody of the musical genre. Unfortunately, awareness of its own lack of originality is not a sufficient cure for it.
by Hayley Levitt
For those who have never played the Wiki Game, the concept is simple. The object is to navigate between two completely unrelated Wikipedia articles through just the embedded links. For instance, you could try to make it from "Santa Claus" to The Shawshank Redemption — in which case, WikiMusical could be deemed an overwhelming success. Unfortunately, as a musical, it's just plain overwhelming.
The story opens on Christmas Eve 1994, when two young brothers, Kurt and Peter (played as their young selves by the adorable Lucas Schultz and Noah Marlowe) have a run-in with Old Saint Nick (one of the many characters inhabited by Adam B. Shapiro). After a few awkwardly placed anti-Semitic comments, Santa leaves the boys with a state-of-the-art Gateway 2000 along with a few hints about an interconnected world of the future. Twenty years later, Kurt and Peter (now played by Trey Harrington and Perry Sherman) are estranged for reasons that are hastily explained. However, they must still suffer through an especially painful Christmas Eve with their folks, where odd family secrets are revealed and the brothers find themselves trapped inside the Internet where reality is a thing of the past — cue the menacing music.
From here, the plot explodes into a cacophony of Web-inspired characters from the down-and-out "Emo"ticon (played with excellent comedic timing by Barry Shafrin) to Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, not to mention a rapping cat named Mittens McMittens who is credited with the creation of the Internet. An army of pop icons including Adam Levine, Robert De Niro, and Batman somehow also make it into the mix along Kurt and Peter's inexplicable Wizard of Oz-like journey — most prominently featuring Morgan Freeman (played by Darius Harper), whose famous narrations are no cure for Frank Ceruzzi and Blake J. Harris' overstuffed book. Luckily, Tony nominee Brenda Braxton is on hand as the evil Spam King (yes, "King"), though even her spunky delivery can't punch up composer Trent Jeffords' forgettable tunes, accompanied by Ceruzzi and Harris' clunky lyrics. The mess of plot hardly leaves time for the obligatory romance, which simmers between Peter and a blogger named Jacqui (the talented Alison Novelli) — nor the realization that face-to-face chat never goes out of style.