In 2007, a pair of singer-songwriters, the mononymous Stew and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, took the theater world by storm with the New York premiere of their rock musical Passing Strange. This Public Theater production introduced the theatrical community to a pair of stunningly intellectual writers and ferociously original musicians. A year later, the show played a brief but important Broadway run that engendered both a cult following and an excellent concert film directed by Spike Lee.
They return to their artistic home at the Public to premiere their latest work, The Total Bent. A lofty jumble of a show that deals with God, the civil rights movement, the music industry, sexuality, and a haunted microphone, The Total Bent only intermittently makes sense. But when the spitfire cast and outrageously phenomenal band (fronted by Stew and Rodewald) burst into song, it's a religious experience of the highest caliber.
Like Passing Strange (which won Stew a Tony for his book), The Total Bent is an exploration of a young black man's attempt to get out from under the thumb of his domineering family and forge his own identity. Here, it's a father-son story (as opposed to a mother-son tale as in the former), and there's a spotlight shining on both. Papa Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a once-famous gospel singer who delighted audiences on the church circuit of the Jim Crow-era south, and his son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), is an aspiring performer himself.
Joe got into a mess after purporting to be a faith healer. As a result, the audiences stopped coming. Marty, whose talent lies in songwriting, is convinced he can restore Joe's popularity with tunes featuring lyrics like "That's Why He's Jesus and You're Not, Whitey." Naturally, their beliefs crash. What Marty is writing for Joe is a protest album, aimed at the bus boycotters and civil rights activists of the 1950s. What Joe wants is an album that will appeal to white record buyers so he can "serve God and make us some money." With the arrival of a British record producer named Byron Blackwell (David Cale), Marty embarks on a performing career of his own, but he must decide how far he'll go in order to attain stardom.
With shades of The Jazz Singer, The Total Bent is told through story fragments rather than a traditional narrative. Some, like Blackwell's involvement both professionally and personally with Marty and Joe, are carried through to the end. Others, like the microphone that spurts electric shocks and other demonic noises whenever someone who isn't Joe touches it, tend to fade out. A whole lot of head-scratching ensues as the text, which is credited to Stew, sinks deeper and deeper into this densely metaphorical world and we are left without lifejackets.
The music, on the other hand, is revelatory. Stew and Rodewald have created a thrilling new score that deftly blends gospel and blues with the style of rock and roll bourgeoning during the period in which The Total Bent is set. Lyrically, the songs are sharp and often bitingly funny. "You could take a phrase like 'floor wax' and then repeat it till you get into a trance cuz this trance ain't about religion. It's more a kind of self-hypnosis," Marty sings. "That lyric will never make it to Broadway," Stew replies with a knowing wink to the audience.
Blankson-Wood and Hall are both given beautiful ballads of self-actualization and barnstorming rock numbers, which they deliver with an exciting amount of fire in their eyes. They also look smashing in Gabriel Berry's sepia-toned period costumes. So does Cale, who nearly steals the production with his own dazzling mid-show aria of discovery, simply titled "Bluntgomery." David Neumann's choreography for moments like these is exuberant and boisterous, while the ace band, led by drummer Marty Beller of They Might Be Giants, brings the house down.
As staged by longtime Stew and Rodewald collaborator Joanna Settle, The Total Bent is sort of a theatri-concert with a story that's simultaneously of this world and on another planet. Andrew Lieberman's set firmly places the work in a recognizable earthly venue (a recording studio), while Thom Weaver's mysterious lighting transports it to a location not of this astral plane. This dichotomy is befitting of the show itself, at once messy and transportive, and thoroughly mesmerizing from start to finish.