NYMF 2015: Moses Man; Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera; Wearing Black
This is TheaterMania's first review roundup of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
In writing the book and lyrics for Moses Man, Deborah Haber has drawn from the real story of her parents, who bounced around four continents after fleeing Hitler's Austria. While the story is undeniably fascinating, the delivery is disappointingly limp.
Artist Moshe (Evan Daves) is about to open a major installation. His grandfather (Kevin McGuire) takes the opportunity to tell him about the family history. It begins in 1938 Vienna. The Anschluss has made Austria unsafe for Jews. Avi (Oliver Thornton, playing the younger version of Moshe's Opa) determines that he and new wife Lia (Tess DeFlyer) must leave. Lia's brother Freddy (Zachary Clause) flees to Belgium, which proves to be a terrible mistake. Meanwhile, Lia and Avi journey from Austria to Italy to Cyprus to Palestine to deepest, darkest Africa. At every turn they face some bureaucratic barrier, which Avi always overcomes by essentially asking pretty please. "I have a way with people," Opa explains, dismissing the improbable feats of immigration he performed in his younger years.
Uncommon powers of persuasion may be an integral part of family lore, but they make for head-scratching, underdeveloped theater. Worse, Avi's ability to wave his hands like a Jedi and make his immigration woes disappear saps the story of a prime opportunity for conflict and dramatic tension.
Michael Bush's lethargic staging (coupled with absent performances from the cast) reflects this. "No...my husband," Lia half-reaches for Avi when it looks like he might not be admitted aboard an American transport. It's as if not even she believes he's in any real jeopardy. For a musical about the Holocaust, this is an unfortunate and avoidable misstep. Not even Freddy's eleven-o'clock number set in a gas chamber (a moment of questionable taste) offers much of a sense of danger. Casey Filiaci's instantly forgettable music does nothing to pep up this bafflingly sleepy show.
While Moses Man may very well enter the repertory of JCC drama clubs around the country, it is unlikely to capture the imagination of a wider audience.
Twenty-one years later, we're still obsessed with the saga of American figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, whose bitter feud turned the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics into one of the most watched sporting events in history. Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli's so-bad-it's-good Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera is evidence of this. As it turns out, the overwrought emotions and gaudy costumes of professional figure skating lend themselves perfectly to the form.
Nancy Kerrigan (a twitchy and slightly cold Jenna Leigh Green) is an all-American ice princess. Tonya Harding (the spunky Tracy McDowell) is a bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks, but she's also the first woman to land the difficult triple Axel (a jump hitherto performed by male skaters). When a mysterious man whacks Nancy's knee in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics, the media suspects the involvement of Tonya or at the very least her sleazebag ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Tony LePage). With so much drama swirling around them, can they ever hope to clinch gold for Team USA?
LePage lends Gillooly a bourbon-soaked rocker voice that hurts so good. The hilarious Liz McCartney goes full Jekyll & Hyde in her dual roles as both Tonya's and Nancy's moms. Marc Kimelman's frenetic choreography captures both the athleticism of skating and the ridiculousness of lyrical dance. When you can hear them, Searle and Teoli's lyrics are efficient and to the point (unfortunately, the production suffers from serious balance issues, with the hard-charging music often drowning out the vocals). Sound engineering aside, this story was always meant to be a rock opera.
Director David Alpert has staged a particularly enjoyable production. Clocking in at 95 minutes, it packs in a tremendous amount of song, dance, and laughs. Don't miss it.
Wearing Black might alternatively be titled Bad Decisions: The Musical. The sheer volume of drug overdoses and ill-advised hookups is enough to make one's head spin. Riley Thomas (who penned the book, music, and lyrics) has created a show likely to appeal to fans of Next to Normal and Rent. While two hours of witnessing the self-made problems of the overgrown adolescents at the heart of this story would normally be insufferable, Thomas makes them tolerable and occasionally interesting with his pulsating rock score. This is aided by believable performances from the attractive cast and a competent staging by Jeremy Scott Lapp.
Charlie is dead to begin with. The charismatic rock front man is survived by his disapproving father (Mark Coffin), bandmate Nate (the adorable B.J. Gruber), and twin brother Evan (Devin Ilaw). Nate's girlfriend, Alyssa (Hayley Anna Norris), worries that Evan will follow the same path as Charlie. She has good reason: Though speedballing (the dangerous combination of heroin with cocaine) killed his twin, Evan thinks he might just get it to work for him.
As Charlie's wild-child girlfriend, Kristin (Erin Maya), gives the most thrillingly committed performance of the group. Even her musical phrasing is in character as she greedily sucks up every last bit of cocaine from her nostrils before belting out a chorus. "You know that something's out of place / When you're bleeding from the face," Evan admonishes her through song.
While Thomas's lyrics are often banal, they are always elevated by his unique and exciting musical style. Director Lapp has led the five-person cast to realistic and memorable performances, making Wearing Black a worthwhile experience, even if you're not particularly interested in the subject matter.