Promenade Marks the Reappearance of a Rarely Seen Maria Irene Fornes Musical
Usually, the death of a writer prompts renewed interest in examining their catalog of work. However, the theater industry has been surprisingly slow to honor the pioneering avant-garde dramatist Maria Irene Fornes, one of the leading figures from the off-off-Broadway movement in the 1960s, who died last October. Only two New York City productions have taken shape in the nearly nine months since her passing: Theatre for a New Audience's upcoming fall 2019 revival of Fefu and Her Friends and New York City Center's current, two-night staging of Fornes' and Rev. Al Carmines's Promenade, presented as part of the Encores! Off-Center series. Fortunately, Laurie Woolery's production, closing tonight, July 11, is a fittingly luxurious tribute.
The picaresque little plot of Promenade follows two nameless escaped convicts (James T. Lane and Kent Overshown) on an adventure throughout the city as they attempt to evade a buffoonish, sex-crazed police officer (Mark Bedard). Joined along the way by a disgruntled maid (Bryonha Marie Parham), the pair stumble upon a party thrown by socialites who prove that "riches make you dumb," onto a battlefield where one soldier (Don Darryl Rivera, hilariously sincere) is more concerned with complaining about a terrible hamburger than he is with his impending doom, and into the home of the Mayor (Becca Blackwell) where their past finally catches up with them.
Promenade is a difficult show to pull off. Fornes's book scenes are highly stylized, extremely blunt in their dialogue, and often meander way past the point of funny. Carmines's diverse score, which ranges from operatic to bluesy, calls for singers at the top of their game. Given the time constraints in Off-Center's rehearsal process, it's no surprise that Woolery's staging is a hybrid of concert and full production. This is one of the rare Encores! shows where the performers frequently look at their scripts. A music stand even makes an appearance.
With that said, it's surprising what the minimal rehearsal time has been able to afford — energetic choreography by Hope Boykin that fits the zany tone of the material, a clever multilevel set by Donyale Werle, outrageously glittery costumes by Clint Ramos, and a company undaunted by musical notes in Carmines's score that are so high they practically beg for a standing ovation. Bonnie Milligan, Carmen Ruby Floyd, and Marcy Harriell, who play members of the oblivious glitterati, launch vocal pyrotechnics that are too explosive to be believed.
Ultimately, Promenade isn't a show for everyone. It's a little too off the beaten path for mainstream audiences, and a little bit of butt-buster, too (it runs nearly two hours without a break). But for the collectors of oddball, rarely seen musicals among us, this production is an open curio cabinet, and students of theater history should definitely make their way to City Center. It's pretty safe to say that we'll never see a more deluxe production of Promenade than this one, and even likely that we'll never see another production of Promenade again, period.