NYMF 2016: The First Church of Mary; Normativity; A Scythe of Time
This is TheaterMania's second review roundup of the 2016 New York Musical Festival.
Lady preacher Adamenses Huckster enters the sanctuary like Dr. Frank-N-Furter before the kill. In truth, as the antihero of Mary (our shorthand hereafter), composer and writer Geoff Davin looks and sounds more like Meat Loaf after a sex change. He has undeniable stage presence, a mean set of pipes, and heaps of soul —everyone in this cast does. That doesn't mean they can salvage a show that is laden with fat and not as funny as it should be.
As you might have guessed from the long-winded title, the show takes place during a church benefit concert: Adamenses wants the money raised ($10,000!) to go toward a very special mission to Honolulu she is planning with hunky guitarist Dirk (Michael San Miguel). Stage manager Charlotte (Megan Murphy Chambers, sympathetically playing the Yitzhak to her Davin's Hedwig) wants it to go to a foundation for women in trouble. The show proceeds on a windy road to their ultimate confrontation, making frequent diversions for mildly funny comedy bits and toe-tapping songs that do little to advance the plot.
Mary has a lot going for it: memorable songs, talented vocalists, and a killer band with an adorable brass section (most of the musicians are members of soul music collective Soul'D Out NYC). It lives at the intersection of commerce and religion, a fruitful corner for satire.
Still, it suffers from some disappointing (though easily rectifiable) flaws: Stage manager Katie Veglio ought to run an iron over the wrinkly projection screen before performances (the photos and video were barely visible, robbing the show of much-needed sight gags). Perhaps with some more development time, director Martha Wilkinson can find a way to end the first act that doesn't involve the cast and musicians awkwardly sauntering off stage as the house lights slowly fade up. Most of all, the musical numbers should relate more directly to the story Davin is trying to tell. We know he can write a great song, but it should also be able to advance the plot. If that fell into place, Mary would truly be an occasion to rejoice.
With a title only a gender studies professor could love, Normativity defies expectations, proving to be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Jaime Jarrett (who wrote the book, music, and lyrics) offers a smart take on the state of LGBT fiction, a genre that seems to be primarily about tragedy voyeurism. That is clear from the opening number, in which the ensemble sings, "I cannot stress enough how much I want to read / About things I never want to happen to me." In light of our society's insatiable hunger for reality TV, Jarrett's observations seem to be right on the money.
The story revolves around popular author Charlie (Mitchell Winter), who is writing a new novel of teenage lesbian heartbreak with the encouragement of his fiancée/agent Kara (Aneesh Sheth). Unhappy with the final chapter of the book (which involves suicide, naturally), main character Emily (Madeline Wolf) pops off the page to force Charlie to give her a happy ending. With the help of budding literary critic Taylor (Izzy Castaldi) and her friends Mike (Christopher Livingston), Dev (Soph Menas), and Kara (the delightfully naughty Geena Quintos), Emily tries to help Charlie see the error of his ways. But can she do it without falling in love in the real world?
Under the direction of Mia Walker, the entire cast commits wholly to the fantastical premise, so that we never question its validity. Jarrett's pop/rock score (somewhat reminiscent of the short-lived off-Broadway musical Bare) easily draws us into the story and keeps us hooked. That is, until the second act, which is two reflective ballads too long, causing our minds to wander. If Jarrett could find a way to wrap this show up more decisively, she would have the makings of an excellent new musical.
Our taste for the sensational and grotesque in literature is not a new development. In fact, it is at least as old as American gothic author Edgar Allan Poe, who parodied the craze for all things horrible in his companion short stories, "A Predicament" and "How to Write a Blackwood Article." They provide the basis for Alan Harris and Mark Alan Swanson's perversely hilarious A Scythe of Time, a musical tale of the (quite literal) cutthroat world of publishing.
Blackwood (P.J. Griffith and his bewitching eyes) is the most powerful publisher in London. His namesake articles in which writers recount their own deaths in gory detail have become a sensation; with his only remaining competition being Bluebatch, a small magazine edited by Signora Psyche Zenobia (the riotous Lesli Margherita). In order to get in on Blackwood's game, Zenobia determines to write the greatest Blackwood article of all time.
Harris' book finds the correct balance of horror and silliness, while Swanson's music is appropriately overwrought, with every performer pitching their songs like they were performing Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Metropolitan Opera.
Director David Alpert's slick production suggests a longer run than six performances. Dan Scully's detailed projections not only help set the mood, but play an integral role in plot development. Lindsay McWilliams' awesome costumes give this show a professional sheen rarely experienced in festivals like NYMF: The black-clad ensemble looks like they were yanked out of an Edward Gorey illustration, while Margherita's red and green dress makes her look like a particularly sassy Christmas tree.
In its own very strange way, A Scythe of Time proves to be deadly good fun and a breath of fresh air at this festival.