NYMF 2017: Miss Blanche Tells It All; The Cadaver Synod; The Body Politic

This is TheaterMania’s second review roundup of the 2017 New York Musical Festival.

Brian Charles Rooney stars in Miss Blanche Tells It All.
Brian Charles Rooney stars in Miss Blanche Tells It All.
(© Bjorn Bolinder)

Miss Blanche Tells It All

By Pete Hempstead

Part cabaret, part literary mystery, Miss Blanche Tells It All is among the top shows at this year's NYMF. Jason Jacobs and Matthew C. Pritchard's musical, bursting with memorable numbers magnificently performed by Brian Charles Rooney, blend the confessional format of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with the breathy nostalgia of Tennessee Williams in a moving and highly satisfying work.

"Miss Blanche," the stage name of Lee, a gay drag performer, stumbles onstage, half dressed and half drunk, in a 1960s New Orleans night spot called the Golden Lantern. Wigless and disheveled, Miss Blanche carries a lacey parasol as she belts the opening number, "Hothouse Flower," in a startlingly lovely soprano (Rooney's tenor is equally impressive). Suddenly conscious of his state of dishabille, Lee calls for his dressing trunk to be brought out, on top of which he finds a telegram, which he refuses to open.

So begins the mysterious tale of Lee's origins as he tells us about his hypermasculine father, distant mother, and enigmatic aunt Blanche. Rooney, a consummate performer who dazzles with nearly every song in this 100-minute show, peels away the vulnerable layers of Lee's identity in a subtle and polished performance. Likewise, director Gisela Cardenas uses a gossamer touch in allowing Lee's secrets to be revealed one by one while creating suspense around the contents of the telegram. Gradually, the audience gathers who Lee really is.

The music itself — performed by music director Robert Frost on piano, Mark Van Ziegler on bass, and Kylie Andrews on drums — shows sophistication and a deep sensitivity to this cabaret style of storytelling. "Officer Dad," "Not Long, My Darling," and "They Don't Make Gals Like That No More" poignantly tell of Lee's family, but nothing prepares us for the crushingly beautiful "Too Much Skin in the Game," the show's most haunting and memorable number. In the end, Miss Blanche doesn't quite tell it all, but then again, she doesn't have to.

David Larsen as Pope Stephen VII with dead Pope Formosus and ensemble in The Cadaver Synod.
David Larsen as Pope Stephen VII with dead Pope Formosus and ensemble in The Cadaver Synod.
(© Russ Rowland)

The Cadaver Synod

By Kenji Fujishima

Subtitled "A Pope Musical," Robbie Florian's The Cadaver Synod is a rock-opera treatment of the infamous posthumous trial in 897 A.D. of Pope Formosus, whose corpse his predecessor, Pope Stephen VII, ordered dug up so he could be put on trial for various offenses to the church. While this incident is, by any reckoning, an unexpected basis for a musical, so was Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's idea to turn the bible story of Joseph and his God-given dream-interpreting talents into a lavish Broadway show. Florian brings a similar stylistic and unapologetically anachronistic playfulness to The Cadaver Synod, especially in an opening trio of numbers that distills the complexities of the historical, political, and religious context of the time into exuberant grab-bag medleys as the cast members move about the stage in full glam-rock regalia.

Underneath the pop-punk idiom, winking self-aware jokes, and infectious "let's put on a show" spirit, however, Florian is trying to tackle some heady themes here. The trial itself takes up the first act, and in this dramatization, becomes an ideological tug-of-war between the young deacon (Ethan Gabriel Riordan) tapped to defend the dead Pope Formosus, and Pope Stephen VII (David Larsen), whose blatant abuses of power throughout the trial gradually decimates the deacon's idealistic faith in reason. This battle between intellect and emotion becomes The Cadaver Synod's most resonant idea, in large part because of the palpably stark contrast between Riordan's well-meaning desperation and Larsen's imposing dominance.

But disappointingly, in the second act, The Cadaver Synod tries to be an ahistorical speculation on what led Pope Stephen VII to this extraordinarily grotesque action, going for an explanation that may stoke topical sociopolitical fires, but also feels too shopworn, and not supported by enough character development to make it play as devastatingly as it wants to be. While The Cadaver Synod remains consistently entertaining throughout, it's at its best when it is simply content to be a begotten punk-rock child of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Tina Scariano, Samy El-Noury, and Yassi Noubahar star in The Body Politic.
Tina Scariano, Samy El-Noury, and Yassi Noubahar star in The Body Politic.
(© Michael Kushner)

The Body Politic

By Hayley Levitt

The Body Politic comes to the New York Musical Festival having already made headlines. In 2016, it was performed in the North Carolina State Legislature in protest of House Bill 2 — a demonstration that was ultimately successful, and defended the rights of the state's transgender population. It's a heartening testament to the power of art and its ability to shape social mores. However, in its current form, The Body Politic registers as more of an instructive moral compass than a story about real people navigating the politics imposed on the human form.

The missed opportunities in The Body Politic (directed by Zi Alikhan) are frustrating, considering the fascinating story at the musical's core that blends the debates surrounding both national and gender identity. Samy El-Noury stars as Iphis, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, who was born a girl, but raised a boy in the mid-1990s by his mother, Roxana (Laleh Khorsandi), in order to enjoy the freedoms afforded only to men in their culture (actress Yassi Noubahar plays young Iphis). As his body matures into that of a woman, Iphis's mother decides to regard her "son" once again as "daughter," but Iphis refuses to let go of his male identity — ultimately moving to North Carolina with an American aid worker named Chris who promises to treat him like a son. But when Chris becomes a casualty of the War in Afghanistan, Iphis is left in the care of Chris's conservative wife Constance (Tina Scariano) and her son Michael (interestingly played by Noubahar) — later finding camaraderie in a boisterous drag queen named Eugene (Asher Dubin).

The vocally challenging score (by Leo Hurley, with book and lyrics by Charles Osborne) is sung-through. The collection of meandering recitatives sound particularly beautiful on the impressive soprano voices of Khorsandi, Noubahar, and Scariano (who stands out with her performance of "Peace and a Picket Fence"). Unfortunately, the score not only lacks melody but also hinders plot development. Each number brings the show to a standstill, counterproductively draining the production of the emotion it's attempting to tap into. While such detailed explanations of different minds — cisgender, transgender, right, left, and center — may encourage some valuable self-reflection, emotion needs to be felt, not explained.

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