[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the fourth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, playing various venues in Manhattan.]
The serial murders committed by teenagers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the 1950s have spawned numerous fictional accounts, including the films Badlands and Natural Born Killers. Now, Kyle Jarrow has turned their story into the compelling, but uneven, new musical Love Kills, directed by Jason Southerland.
His version begins shortly after the killers’ arrests. Sheriff Merle Karnopp (John Hickock) has enlisted his wife Gertrude (Deirdre O’Connell) to help him get the teens to sign confessions prior to the arrival of their lawyers in the morning. Gertrude’s talks with Caril Ann (Marisa Rhodes) remind her of herself in her confused youth, while Merle’s confrontations with Charlie (Eli Schneider) also force him to do some self-examination. The contrast Jarrow creates between the fierce passion of the young lovers and the tender yet restrained union of the older couple is striking, and serves as a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love.
The score includes hard-driving rock numbers that veer into punk, tender ballads, and even a terrific 1950s-style tune, “Love Will Never Die.” The majority of the songs break out of the show’s narrative, expressing the inner thoughts and desires of the characters, who step outside the bounds of the prison bars to sing directly to the audience. This device works conceptually, and set designer James Williston leaves an opening at the back to allow quicker egress. However, getting in and out of the barred areas is still sometimes awkward.
Jarrow labels his work an “emo rock musical,” and Schneider most fully embodies this style, erupting into spontaneous bursts of emotion that helps to give his performance a dangerous edge. Rhodes is outstanding in her rock solo, “When I Could Feel,” but her acting is quite flat and makes Caril Ann come across as more of a simpleton than a confused teenager. O’Connell expertly brings out Gertrude’s doubts and anxieties, but also provides an inner strength that belies her frail exterior. Hickock’s Merle is solid and seemingly unyielding, but has more capacity for compassion than is at first evident.
Jarrow’s dialogue occasionally comes across as banal, particularly in the flashback sequences between Charlie and Caril Ann. However, when taken as a whole, the musical is vibrant and exciting.
With The Rockae, the musical theater team of Peter Mills (music, lyrics, and book) and Cara Reichel (book and direction) offer up a rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae that transforms the classic Greek tragedy into a sexy rock ‘n’ roll event, both wildly erotic and blaringly electric.
Unfortunately, the sheer volume of the production could prove problematic for those unfamiliar with Euripides’ play. From the moment Dionysus (Michael Cunio) appears, it’s clear that sound designer Daniel Erdberg has done a bang-up job in ensuring that Rockae sounds like an adrenaline-filled rock concert. Cunio certainly looks the part and strikes an impressively seductive figure with a mane of blond hair and lithesome legs sheathed by costume designer David Withrow in rocker’s pants that look painted on, but it’s rough to catch everything he’s singing. Still, just like the women of Thebes, we’re drawn into his presence and Mills’ harmonies. Dionysus’ song soon empties the city of its women, who retreat to Mount Citheraon for a bacchanalia, much to the dismay of King Pentheus (Mitchell Jarvis, also looking and sounding like a rock star).
Dionysus lures the women out of Thebes because he is angry that Pentheus does not recognize his status as a god, a disbelief that ultimately has tragic consequences. Reichel’s production, aided by Marlo Hunter’s choreography, surges with animalistic intensity while also retaining a humanity found in Euripides’ original, even if some lyrics remain unintelligible throughout. Not only do Cunio and Jarvis provide vocally powerful performances, so do Gordon Stanley (as Cadmus, the young men’s hedonistic grandfather), Meghan McGeary (as Pentheus’ mother Agave, swept up in Dionysus’ siren song) and Matt DeAngelis (as a cowherd who emotionally reports what he’s seen on the Mount). Ultimately, these performances, Mills’ score, and Reichel’s staging overcome the show’s aural shortcomings and combine to seduce nearly as thoroughly as Dionysus’ siren song.
Basing a musical on Roman poet Catullus is an intriguing idea, but the end result from composer/lyricist Stephanie Johnstone and book writer/lyricist/director Joshua William Gelb, Tully (In No Particular Order), is sadly flawed and, at times, downright boring.
The show’s conceit is that Tully (Adam Hose) has lost his memory and is trying to piece his life together by examining the poetry he’s left behind. As the title indicates, certain scenes are played out of order, but there’s still a more or less chronological progression that details his passionate love affair with Clodia Beautée (Kate Rockwell) as well as his vengeful smearing of her name following their breakup. Tully also takes up with male protégé Julie (Evan Jay Newman) and has a strained but affectionate relationship with his sister Quinn (Autumn Hurlbert) and her husband Cal (David McGee).
The score does contain some haunting melodies, particularly “The Loving of You,” which is repeated at various points in the show. There’s also the very funny “The Door Song,” the amusing “Bob,” and the sly examination of love and marriage, “Forever.” The rest of the score, while never awful, is less memorable. The onstage musicians, however, are terrific, and I particularly loved hearing Louisa Ellis Woodson on harp.
Although occasional references to Caesar place the action in ancient Rome, the modern-dress production features contemporary language and a modern sensibility. This ostensibly makes the characters easier to relate to, but it doesn’t hide the fact that they are so flatly written. None of the roles — including Tully — are fleshed out particularly well by either the writer/director or the actors. Some of them are even broad caricatures, such as Clodia’s brother Claude (Austin Miller) and Tully’s soldier friend Rufus (Owen O’Malley). This makes it difficult to care about the fates of anyone in the show, and the action grows somewhat monotonous.
Schlock sci-fi musicals — think Little Shop of Horrors — are a tricky proposition, since camp and intentional cheesiness must be integrated into the precarious equation of musical theater. Bruce Kimmel and David Wechtel initially seem to hit paydirt in The Brain from Planet X. But, this show — which is also directed by Kimmel — collapses under the weight of its gimmickry and scattershot comedy.
When the show’s narrator (Benjamin Clark) takes to the stage like some overly serious 1950s TV anchor, we immediately see the promise of Brain. Equally auspicious are the first moments between Joyce (Amy Bodnar) and Fred Bunson (Rob Evan), the San Fernando Valley couple whose domestic tranquility will be disrupted by the arrival of the Brain (Barry Pearl), who’s on a mission to take over Earth by destroying the nuclear family.
He has apt victims in the Bunsons. She’s certainly Mrs. Cleaver-esque as she grills. He’s a lunk who knows best, particularly when it comes to “good girl” daughter Donna (Merrill Gran), who only wants to be “bad” with her would-be Beatnik boyfriend Rod (Paul Downs Colaizzo). Kimmel’s initial songs for these characters sparkle, and the Brain, with his two cohorts, the officious and perky Zubrick (Cason Murphy) and voraciously sexual Yoni (Alet Taylor), delights.
However, after Brain zaps Joyce with his will bender ray (turning her into an early women’s libber), Brain falters. Wechtel’s book has gotten us to the crux of any sci-fi tale — namely, who will save the world? — but he and Kimmel get sidelined. An audience participation section loses steam rapidly — although it’s book-ended by a swell tap number from choreographer Adam Cates — and the strangely quaint character numbers for the aliens slow the show, making the second act feel padded. The musical rights itself by the time the Brain’s plan is thwarted, but the show never fully recovers enough to be placed into the pantheon of great sci-fi musicals.