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NYMF 2017: My Dear Watson; The Time Machine; Errol and Fidel

This is TheaterMania's first review roundup of the 2017 New York Musical Festival.

John DiDonna as Sherlock Holmes with Kyle Stone as Dr. John Watson.
(© Chris Bridges)

My Dear Watson

By Bethany Rickwald

When Guinness World Records awarded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes with the title of most portrayed literary human character in film and TV in 2012, the recognition was a testament to the character's resilience and broad appeal. Those are two characteristics which NYMF's My Dear Watson, a musical trek through Holmes's legendary friendship with roommate-cum-partner-in-crime-solving Dr. John Watson, puts to the ultimate test.

The new work by Jami-Leigh Bartschi (book writer, composer, lyricist, and musical director) follows the pair of unlikely chums through Conan Doyle's first full (if much-abridged) arc of their relationship, from the first introduction all the way to Holmes' sacrificial demise at the hand of his nemesis Moriarty — a decade span, according to Holmsian canon. But given the musical's chronological scope, it manages to cover surprisingly little dramatic territory. Moriarty is first introduced almost halfway through the show — as the villain behind a typically convoluted murder mystery that's fully dispensed with over the course of Act 1 — which means that the plot, such as it is, doesn't begin in earnest until post-intermission.

As the title implies, Bartschi clearly intends for her musical's main emotional heft to be delivered by a compelling camaraderie between the two charmingly eccentric protagonists, but the show's principal pair don't prove to be up to the task of buoying this sinking musical. Of the two, Kyle Stone as Dr. John Watson is the more proficient (director John DiDonna plays Sherlock Holmes), both vocally and dramatically, and he's at the forefront for most of My Dear Watson's most watchable moments. But unfortunately those moments occur all too rarely over the show's two hours, and while one musical is unlikely to have much of an effect on the enduring popularity of the world's only consulting detective, one is compelled to wonder whether the conniving Moriarty just might be lurking somewhere behind the scenes of My Dear Watson.

The ensemble of The Time Machine.
(© Russ Rowland)

The Time Machine

By Pete Hempstead

David Mauk and Brenda Mandabach's The Time Machine, a musical loosely based on H.G. Wells's novella of the same name, takes liberties with its source material. Here, Professor Dash (Randal Keith), a character not found in the book, serves as a nemesis to Thomas (Michael Hunsaker), who has invented a machine that can travel through time. The revamping of the plot is not an improvement, but Dash does have the show's most innovative musical numbers. His songs, such as "Who Makes the Rules," "When I Find Him," and "Harvest Time," are melodically adventurous, featuring impressive reed work by Mike Livingston. The rest of this musical, unfortunately, feels stuck in the past.

Mauk and Mandabach have further embellished Wells's plot with back stories and a love interest. Thomas, an inventor kicked out of college for allegedly starting a fire, creates a time machine that the scientific community of 1900 thinks should be turned over to them. Rival scientist Professor Dash creates his own time machine and whizzes to the year 11201 A.D. Thomas follows him in his own machine and encounters the Eloi, a blissfully oblivious people who live aboveground and who are occasionally eaten by underground dwellers called the Morlocks. Thomas falls in love with a freethinking Eloi, Wenissa (Bligh Voth), and wants to bring her back with him to 1900, but Dash has become leader of the Morlocks and will do everything he can to prevent Thomas from returning home with Wenissa.

Director Justin Baldridge succeeds in showcasing the vocals of Hunsaker and Voth in "Out of Time," but most of the numbers themselves lack the musical spice of Dash's songs. Jim Cooney's choreography has the cast striking curious poses, as in the opening number, "A New Century." That quirkiness might have worked if The Time Machine kept tongue in cheek throughout and injected some humor into what becomes a grim, then ultimately confused and nonsensical story. But neither the director nor the writers establish a consistent tone for this two-hour musical (made longer by an unnecessary intermission), and that makes for some inevitable clock-watching.

Jonathan Steward and George Psomas as Errol and Fidel's title characters Errol Flynn and Fidel Castro.
(© Kurt Sneddon)

Errol and Fidel

By Bethany Rickwald

NYMF's Errol and Fidel is based on the real life 1958 encounter between the late-career golden age Australian-American film star Errol Flynn and the young Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro. According to historical accounts, the two men met while Flynn was in Havana filming the self-produced B movie Cuban Rebel Girls, after which encounter Flynn, quickly won over by Castro, became a vocal supporter of the Cuban revolution.

The plot of Errol and Fidel seems to pull in equal measure from Flynn's real affinity for Castro and his cause, Cuban Rebel Girls itself, and the imagination of book writers Boyd and Guy Anderson. Predictably, this hodgepodge of influences has resulted in an uneven and tonally confused musical. As Sydia Ceneño saunters to center stage at the show's opening with all the self-assurance of an old woman who knows she's seen it all, director Michael Bello manages to infuse the production with an emotional gravitas that smoothly moves into songwriters Peter Kaldor, John Kaldor, Doug Oberhamer, and Boyd Anderson's tongue-in-cheek first musical number, "Like Errol Flynn."

But from there, Errol and Fidel jumps chaotically from political thriller to slapstick comedy to swashbuckling melodrama as Flynn (played by Jonathan Stewart) meets and romances Lola (Claire Saunders), a Batista courtesan, rebel soldier, and C.I.A. double agent, eventually agreeing to take on the role of Minister for Information in Castro's regime.

Throughout the show's tortured twists and turns, its music — especially when its songs feature the strong vocals of Sauders and George Psomas (as Fidel Castro) — remains the most consistently strong element. And in the hands of compelling actors like Saunders, Psomas, and Ryan Bauer-Walsh (as bumbling C.I.A. handler Goode), the text too has occasional moments of wit. Like its eponymous protagonists, if Errol and Fidel could mediate its swagger with a little self-editing, the result just might be a musical worth fighting for.


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