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NYMF 2017: Ben, Virginia and Me: The Liberace Musical, Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical, Georama: An American Panorama

This is TheaterMania's seventh and final review roundup of the 2017 New York Musical Festival.

Samuel Floyd (center) leads the cast of Ben, Virginia and Me: The Liberace Musical, directed by Paul Stancato, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Russ Rowland)

Ben, Virginia and Me: The Liberace Musical

By Zachary Stewart

Those looking for a true spectacle at NYMF can do no better than Ben, Virginia and Me: The Liberace Musical. Conceived and composed by Barbara Carole Sickmen, it's as campy and over-the-top as you would expect from a musical about Liberace, aided greatly by Sickmen's razzle-dazzle score and Lifetime movie dialogued penned by book writer Roger O. Hirson, best known for Broadway's Pippin.

Really, Sickmen and Hirson's musical tells 2.5 stories: There's the three-way business relationship between Liberace (the uncanny Samuel Floyd), mobster and Flamingo Hotel proprietor Ben Siegel (Eric Briarley), and his girlfriend Virginia Hill (Haley Hannah). Then there's our menacing narrator, the British gossip journalist Cassandra (Joel Blum performing critic John Simon as a Bond villain), who suggests Liberace's homosexuality in his column, prompting the pianist to sue him for libel. Squeezed in wherever it can fit and proving that suit erroneous is a subplot about Liberace's clandestine romance with Rock Hudson (the actor is not credited in the program and mostly appears in the shadows or with the back of his head facing the audience — no one upstages Liberace).

None of these stories get proper attention, resulting in a fun, Google-inducing, but ultimately unfocused show. "Too Much Is Never Enough," the musical's big production number about the creation of Liberace the showman, is great advice in snagging headlines and bookings; when editing a musical, it's deadly.

Still, director-choreographer Paul Stancato (and co-choreographer Sidney Erik Wright) have staged a handsome production, full of flashy dance moves and even flashier costumes by Kurt Alger. Rarely does Liberace enter the stage wearing the same thing twice (the green paisley PJs were a particular favorite of mine). Everything is gorgeously sequined and coiffed, with only one major misstep: Liberace's second act wig is only slightly more plausible as human hair than the one worn by a British judge in the courtroom scene.

But in a musical as gleefully gay as this one, a busted wig adds to the fun. Take your best girlfriends and get ready for a laugh: This one's way more fun than Behind the Candelabra.

Brynn Williams leads the cast of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical, directed by Whitney White, for NYMF at the Acorn Theatre.
(© Mia Winston)

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical

By Kenji Fujishima

The second act of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical begins with a stirring gospel number, "Come Down to the River," that, as it crescendos to a passionately raucous climax, is brutally interrupted by a brick thrown through a church window. But for John Lewis (Anthony Chatmon II, whose dancing is as impressive as his falsetto), Diane Nash (Brynn Williams), and the rest of their Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) brethren, it is — nay, can only be — a temporary setback in their larger fight against racial discrimination in the American South during the 1960s. Their resilience is subsequently exemplified by the way they gradually pick up their hymn again, their initial passion reemerging phoenix-like from the broken glass.

That genuinely shocking moment stands out as one of the few instances in Richard Allen and Taran Gray's historical musical in which one can viscerally sense the uphill battle Lewis, Nash, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard), and other civil-rights protesters faced, especially with their chosen mode of nonviolent protest. Mostly, though, Freedom Riders — in its depiction of the actions of the young activists who risked their lives to assert their constitutional rights by riding interstate buses into the South — leans too hard on uplift at the expense of drama and nuance. Almost every one of Allen and Gray's numbers is a rallying cry of some sort, with certain phrases — "ride to glory," "tell them something," "you are the wind," and so on — repeated throughout the show like mantras. The result can't help but make the whole show feel one-note, however bracing that note is.

Allen's book offers glimpses of the more complex drama Freedom Riders might have been. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (played with an inconsistent accent by Barry Anderson) appears here in all his cautious political pragmatism, a believer in civil rights who was nevertheless unwilling to ruffle feathers. Most notable is Allen's emphasis on King's reluctance to join the Freedom Riders, which the young activists find disappointing coming from the leader who taught them the value of nonviolent protest in the first place. Such attention to shades of gray is sorely missed in the otherwise blaringly inspirational Freedom Riders, the kind of earnest and well-meaning work that you wish were better than it is.

P.J. Griffith stars as John Banvard in Georama: An American Panorama Told on Three Miles of Canvas, directed by West Hyler, for NYMF at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
(© Jagged Edge Arts)

Georama: An American Panorama Told on Three Miles of Canvas

By Zachary Stewart

The lengthy title of this attraction conveys the outsize ambitions of its subject. It tells the story of John Banvard (the broodingly handsome P.J. Griffith), a now mostly forgotten 19th-century American artist who sought to depict the whole Mississippi River Valley in his moving panorama paintings. In Georama, Banvard relays stories about the river and turns a crank to move the scrolling picture frame from left to right while composer Elizabeth Goodnow (the honey-voiced Jillian Louis) underscores the swelling scene. It's a thrillingly theatrical combination of forms, so why do so few people know about Banvard today?

This musical by West Hyler (book), Matt Schatz (book, music, and lyrics), and Jack Herrick (additional music and lyrics) elegantly and humorously rides on the friction between art and commerce, truth and lies. Those themes come to the fore through Randy Blair's outrageously entertaining portrayal of master showman P.T. Barnum, who is this musical's primary antagonist. Banvard may originate an idea, but Barnum knows how to sell it to the masses — and it's his name we remember.

Herrick and Schatz have composed a score as bittersweet as the story, full of breathtakingly gorgeous songs. It helps to have a talented two-person band in Jacob Yates and Ana Marcu, who take on minor roles in Hyler's efficient staging. Nick Sullivan completes the cast, playing a number of supporting parts, including a discreetly naughty Queen Victoria.

Costume designer Whitney Locher provides memorably idiosyncratic period costumes (including a knit tuxedo jacket), while projection designer Jason Thompson succeeds in the herculean task of creating the Georama. It lazily rolls along like the river it depicts, making us eager to know what comes next.

For a dramatically insightful and melodic musical about a distinctly American figure, this is your best bet in NYMF.


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