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NYMF 2016: Children of Salt; Eh Dah? Questions for My Father; Ultimate Man!

This is TheaterMania's first review roundup of the 2016 New York Musical Festival.

Mario Cortés, Javier Ignacio, Mauricio Martínez, and Nicolas Baumbartner star in Children of Salt, directed by Jose Zayas, at the Pearl Theatre for NYMF.
(© Russ Rowland)

Children of Salt

By Pete Hempstead

In the Bible, when Lot's wife turns around to look at the city she is fleeing, she turns into a pillar of salt. Jaime Lozano and Lauren Epsenhart's poignant new musical, Children of Salt, running at the Pearl Theatre, uses that image to lovely effect to tell the story of a Mexican man who returns to his hometown where memories of his youth prevent him from moving on.

Raúl (Mauricio Martínez), who has recently turned 40, returns after 20 years to the town where he grew up to visit his grandmother (April Ortiz), whose health is failing. During his stay, he thinks about his three childhood friends, the young woman he fell in love with, and his loving abuela. But things have changed since he left, and not always for the best. Before he can get on with his life, Raúl has to find a way to stop obsessing about the past and forgive himself for the friends he failed and the woman he left behind.

Epsenhart's sensitively written book and lyrics (based on Hernán Galindo's play Los Niños de Sal) and Lozano's animated, salsa-inspired score tell a touching, occasionally sentimental story that resonates with the regrets many of us feel when we hit middle age and start wondering about opportunities lost. Relatable as it is, the musical takes a hefty narrative burden on its shoulders. At 90 minutes, Children of Salt doesn't satisfyingly explore the lives of its eight characters, including a few well-performed but underwritten parts, such as the ambitious, blond-haired Camarón (Nicolas Baumgartner) and the fiery but doomed Ángel (Joshua Cruz).

Still, director Jose Zayas is adept at creating emotionally powerful scenes. The heartfelt chemistry between Martínez (with his gorgeous tenor) and Ortiz shines in songs like "In the Old Days," "Little Boy," and the title number. Mario Cortés, as Raúl's friend Otoniel, gets our tear ducts working with "I Love My Daughter." Other beautifully sung numbers, such as "I Married a Man" (performed by Barrie Linberg, as Raul's lost love, Coral) and "My Mother Took Me to México City" (performed by Florencia Cuenca, as the prostitute Sabina), tantalize us with their characters' back stories and make us wish we knew more about them.

Despite the overcrowding, Children of Salt looks and sounds terrific. The brass-dominated band, led by Geraldine Anello, brings Lozano's Latin rhythms to life, while Epsenhart's lyrics transcend culture and remind us all to think about the things in our own lives that hold us back.

Aya Aziz stars in her solo musical, Eh Dah? Questions for My father, directed by Corinne Proctor, for NYMF at the June Havoc Theatre.
(© Shivani Badgi)

Eh Dah? Questions for My Father

By Zachary Stewart

"How original: a one-woman musical about a struggling 'actress' (read: waitress) in New York City," you might think as Aya Aziz dances her way through an opening number about working late nights at a MacDougal Street chili bar. But as the magnetic Aziz draws us under her spell, Eh Dah? reveals itself to be about so much more. Through song and specific physical performance, Aziz tells the story of her Egyptian-American family, her idiosyncratic childhood in Chelsea, and how circumstances have driven that family apart.

Much of the story revolves around Aziz's Egyptian-born father, who met her American mother when he was just a young foreign student bagging groceries in a Chelsea bodega. They married and raised their daughter in one of the most diverse and progressive communities on earth, leading to some very funny encounters: "What if two women wanted to marry each other," she asks the teacher at her Muslim summer camp. "How would they pass on Islam to their kids if only the man gets to do it?"

Aziz unpacks her sometimes clashing identities in the song "Ghetto Hippie Arab Commie China Doll." More memorable is the late-arriving song, "It's Math, It's Marriage," told from the perspective of her cousins Dalia and Abdu, who aren't as fortunate as Aziz and her father when it comes to the document lottery that is immigration. Aziz bitingly expresses her frustration with this injustice in the fiery, "Words They Don't Say."

Under the simple and effective direction of Corinne Proctor and with the accompaniment of a talented three-man band, Aziz easily embodies every role in her intelligently constructed script. The songs always serve the book, never the other way around. This is what a great one-woman musical can look like.

Alan Gillespie and Michael Glavan star in Ultimate Man!, directed by Charles Abbott, for NYMF at the Pearl Theatre.
(© Rick Stockwell)

Ultimate Man!

By Zachary Stewart

Like a self-aware and less spectacularly disastrous Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Ultimate Man is the latest in a long line of underwhelming comic book-themed musicals. It follows the story of Joe (Alan Gillespie), the third of his name to draw the beloved Ultimate Man (Michael Glavan, looking like ABC's David Muir in spandex) and his lady fair, Cathy Cookie (Sidney Fisher). Ultimate Man fights the evil Rex Ringer (Douglas Ladnier with a baritone purr) as Joe fights off his Republican editor Buffy (Gayle Samuels), who has grown tired of Joe's transparent liberal agenda. Meanwhile, Buffy's social media consultant niece, Beth (Joyah Love Spangler), tries to help Joe bring his craft into the 21st century. Mayhem ensues when the border between the comic world and the real world splits wide open.

With three lyricists (Paul Gambaccini, Alastair William King, and Jane Edith Wilson), one would hope that Ultimate Man! would end up with better lyrics. Clunkers like "Draw the poor and the mentally depressed; / reveal rape culture — it's time it was addressed" suggest a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Not that King's music offers a very inspired setting: a mushy casserole of bubblegum pop and power ballads, it sounds like imitation Alan Menken.

By the second act, the plot has become so convoluted and directionless (absent direction by Charles Abbott) that our minds can't help but wander to an alternate dimension. We've long given up caring about the characters.

At very least, Ultimate Man offers a true reflection of the present state of superhero storytelling in America: It's not any less coherent than Batman v Superman and at 2 hours, 30 minutes, it's just as tedious.