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NYMF 2010 Roundup #1

Reports on three autobiographical rock musicals: Anthony Rapp's Without You, Ned Massey's Bloodties, and Karen Bishko's Therapy Rocks.

Anthony Rapp in Without You
(© Suellen Fitzsimmons)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the seventh annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.]


Without You, a new solo musical written and performed by original Rent cast member Anthony Rapp at the TBG Theater, likely won't tell diehard fans of the beloved musical anything that they haven't already heard. However, it's unlikely they'll ever hear these stories told or songs performed with more sincerity and emotion than Rapp brings to his stage memoir (based upon his 2006 book of the same name).

As Rapp weaves in music from Rent to document that show's rehearsal period, the sudden death of composer Jonathan Larson on the eve of the show's first preview, the posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and the transfer to Broadway where Rent became a phenomenon, he transforms an often-told Broadway legend into a personal and heartfelt reflection on how Rent, and those he met as a result of it, changed his life.

Along with these stories, Without You is also a chronicle of Rapp's final years with his mother who passed away in 1997 after a battle with cancer. Rapp recalls many conversations with the woman who meant so much to him, speaking openly about his fear and anger as he watched her health deteriorate. Performing with intensity songs that he wrote in collaboration with David Matos, John Keaney, and Joe Pisapia, Rapp reflects upon his difficult visits home and ultimately letting his mother go.

In many ways, Rapp's story feels better suited for the stage than it did for a book, because of the raw emotion he brings to his performance and music. The result is a touching theatrical event in which Rapp invites audiences to experience with him a journey of success, loss, and love.

-- Meredith Lee

Katie Thompson, Christopher Kale Jones, and Ned Massey
in Bloodties
(© Philip Holahan)

There's no denying the power of Ned Massey's music in Bloodties, at the TBG Theatre. His songs throb with passion and his lyrics are often intimately revealing. Unfortunately, the autobiographical rock musical is saddled with a clunky book that prevents the piece from building a satisfying momentum.

Told through episodic scenes that occasionally jump backwards and forwards in time, the musical chronicles the high and low points of Massey's life -- what he poetically refers to in the song "Mess" as "the garbage and the grail." There's plenty of dramatic potential in his stories of an abusive father, a stalled career, relationship woes, and other subjects. And yet, the primary characters are not sufficiently developed and the dialogue frequently sounds forced and unconvincing.

Massey, who stars as himself within the show, is at his best when he gives himself over to his music, which can be emotionally powerful. Less successful are his various monologues delivered to and sometimes railing against God, which tend to come across as clichéd and more than a little self-pitying.

The supporting cast, all of whom play multiple roles, do some good work. Katie Thompson's rendition of "Something You Should Know" has a breathy, rock-fueled sexiness reminiscent of Melissa Etheridge. Christopher Kale Jones plays an angel and has an appropriately heavenly voice which is nicely showcased in several songs. Nancy Ringham shines in a late scene as Massey's mother, who sits down for a heart-to-heart with her son. George McDaniel does a fine job as Massey's perpetually angry father, and also as the kinder, gentler father-figure John Hammond, the real-life legendary talent scout who once said that Massey could become the next Dylan or Springsteen.

And indeed, listening to the music within the show that potential is immediately apparent. Especially impressive is the title song, a ballad Massey addresses to his father that encapsulates a world of hurt, hope, and reconciliation.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Rachel Stern in Therapy Rocks
(© Marie Reynolds)

It's no secret that therapists often play favorites -- and that someone who is young, attractive, and open to change could become one of them. That seems to describe Leah (Rachel Stern), the 34-year-old rock singer manquée who's the protagonist of Karen Bishko's largely autobiographical chamber musical Therapy Rocks, at Urban Stages.

Unfortunately, Leah is also annoyingly superficial. (For starters, her primary criterion in selecting a therapist is whether he's "cute.") And as a woman equally obsessed with her ticking biological clock and a tanking career, she comes burdened with way too much standard-issue baggage.

Rachel Stern, a perfectly good singer, gives the role her all and then some; but director Thomas Caruso might have counseled some tamping down. Nor is Stern helped by a self-referential script that has Leah constantly proclaiming her own genius, or by tacky, anachronistic party-girl outfits (courtesy of costumer designer Lisa Zinni) that recall mid-'80s Madonna. If Leah were an aspiring singer-songwriter, the thrust of the story might work. As a superannuated getting-nowhere hard rocker, she just seems pathetically deluded.

Stern's overeagerness to impress stands out in contrast to less in-your-face approaches by the supporting players. Dee Roscioli portrays best friend Jess, who has some very real problems of her own; and Roscioli's searing rendition of "Run" is the high point of the show. Allie Schulz, whose assorted characters go by the collective name of "Beautiful Woman," is not only that, but the actress shows commendable comedic chops in her various guises. As the therapist, Josh Davis is cute enough -- but he's forced to mouth mushy therapeutic clichés, while Adam Halpin as "Everyman" lends panache to an array of small roles.

-- Sandy MacDonald