NYMF 2018: Bad Ass Beauty: The Rock Opera; Interstate; Pedro Pan
This is TheaterMania's first roundup of reviews from the 2018 New York Musical Festival.
By Jack Bowman
More than a musical and more than a concert, Bad Ass Beauty: The Rock Opera is creator and star LaQuinta Prince's life onstage. Although this show could use some more preparation and focus, the band and performers deliver an interactive, touching, and at times hilarious rock musical that tries to deal with the hardships many women face in the music industry.
The story revolves around three leads, Bad Ass (Stefanie Seskin), Beauty (Jameelah Leundra), and Aralyn a.k.a. Alpha Female (Prince), who sing the opening number. Bad Ass and Beauty represent two sides of their fearless leader Aralyn. Using these two parts of herself and what she calls "The Four Horsemen," her other personalities, Aralyn reminisces about her abusive relationship with her father, her time at "Leeberke College" (Prince received her master's degree from Berklee College of Music), and ends with her many failed romantic relationships. While Bad Ass and Beauty do a decent job of showing the classic angel and devil on one's shoulders, the other sides of Aralyn are unfortunately left in the dust until the final scenes.
Prince's fantastic music really is hers. She began her band "Bad Ass Beauty" in 2014 and has written numerous songs, most of which are used in the show. The audience immediately feels invested in this true story, but the lines between reality and theatricality are blurred, making it hard to truly care about what is important. The beginning of the show perfectly captures a common struggle women face in the music industry: Aralyn writes a song that blows up, but only her male partner receives credit for writing it. However, by the second half, the story takes a step away from that real issue and focuses more on her many and easily confusable relationships.
On the night I attended, the most glaring flaws this show faced were from lack of preparation. The main actors consistently dropped lines, skipped scenes and songs, and were forced to ad-lib their way through to the end. It was difficult to follow the story they were trying to tell when some actors didn't quite know the story themselves.
With an ultra-talented rock band and star, and a personal story, Bad Ass Beauty has the potential to be a hit. Prince's powerhouse performance is filled with passion and creation, and, despite a partially unfocused story and a need for more rehearsal time, it has the building blocks to be a new moving rock opera.
By Kenji Fujishima
The title of Kit Yan and Melissa Li's new musical Interstate, on the surface, evokes the cross-country road trip that transgender spoken-word performer Dash (Jon Viktor Corpuz) and lesbian singer-songwriter Adrian (Angel Lin) take together in their quest for mainstream musical success. The title, however, gradually reveals a deeper meaning, especially as the interpersonal difficulties that arise between Dash and Adrian are interwoven with the personal travails of teenager Henry (Sushma Saha), himself dealing with the emotional challenges of female-to-male gender transition in Kentucky. But though Henry looks up to Dash, his assumption that the fiery activist slam poet has his own life figured out is mistaken. Henry's troubled coming-of-age is juxtaposed with Dash's own struggle to disabuse himself of the traditional notions of masculinity that he still subscribes to, for all his vocal progressivism.
It's that aspect of the transgender experience — trying to carve out an identity of one's own, regardless of societal gender norms — that gives Interstate its distinction, offering an eye-opening perspective on even the relatively conventional romantic jealousy that develops when Adrian rebuffs Dash's romantic advances, putting a crimp on their professional and personal relationship. Similarly refreshing, if less revelatory, is its focus on Asian-American artists trying to make inroads into the mainstream, with Adrian hiding her rock-star ambitions from her mother (Michelle Noh), who, in typical Asian "tiger mom" fashion, demands her daughter put aside her musical passions in order to go to Columbia University and focus on something more practical (read: higher-paying).
Yan and Li's songs are generally more pleasant than inventive (though one number, "Those Hands," memorably turns sexual moans into a catchy erotic ostinato). And the second act gets bogged down a bit with overplotting and a too-insistent desire to tie everything up into a neatly uplifting bow. But under the direction of Jessi D. Hill, the actors skillfully locate the emotional thrust in each number, with Saha in particular bringing showstopping desperation to Henry's second-act solo "Why I Share." Their collective passion is enough to redeem the barebones production, with only Janelle Lawrence's prop design and Jennifer J. Fok's lighting design coming anywhere close to evoking a convincing sense of place among all the American cities these characters visit and inhabit. Even at its bumpiest, Interstate is sustained by a generous spirit of inclusivity toward all queer people, artists and otherwise, trying to fully express themselves even as they're trying to figure themselves out.
By Pete Hempstead
A boy flees his homeland, travels to America, and is later prevented from reuniting with his parents, only to face heartless intolerance as he tries to survive in a country that doesn't seem to care about him. That scenario may sound sickeningly familiar, but Pedro Pan, a timely, poignant, and positively charming musical running at this year's NYMF, gives that boy the chance to rise above these circumstances and find acceptance in his new home. Starring a group of exceptional young actors along with Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia (who originated the role of Angel in Rent), Pedro Pan offers a ray of hope for immigrants while shining a glaring light on America's deep-rooted racial and ethnic bigotry.
At the dawn of the Cuban Revolution, young teenager Pedro (Gregory Diaz IV) and his anti-Castro parents (Heredia and Genny Lis Padilla) are threatened by the military, so Pedro is sent to New York to live with his Aunt Lily (Natalie Toro). (Lisa Renkel's impressively large projections and Ben Bauer's lighting design quickly shift the scenes.) There, the Spanish-speaking Pedro befriends two schoolmates: cautious, Mexican-born Roger (Julian Silva) and plucky, Alabama-born Wendy (Taylor Caldwell), both of whom share Pedro's love for the Peter Pan story.
All three endure bullying and prejudice from other students (played by Diego Lucano and Sisley Carretas), as well as the occasional insensitive remark from teachers and other adults (Rodrigo Ignacio Cruz and Cherry Torres). Together, however, they form a tight bond of friendship that allows them to rise above their surroundings and create a place for themselves that feels like home.
Melissa Crespo directs this 75-minute, family-friendly musical with energy and sensitivity. Though Rebecca Aparicio's book doesn't hold much in the way of surprise, Stephen Anthony Elkins's songs, most of which are infused with a salsa beat, bring the story to life with terrific performances from the cast, especially the young actors. Diaz and Silva have fun moments of male bonding in "We Won't Stand Out," and Caldwell showcases her marvelous voice and powerful stage presence in "Beautiful."
Heredia, wearing a de rigueur guayabera (costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell), and Padilla duet in the moving "What Is Best for Our Son," and Toro performs the lovely "This Too Shall Pass" with subdued emotion. Sidney Erik Wright's choreography sometimes looks a bit stiff, except when the trio of young performers get to hoofing, but the four-member band, with Andy Warren blowing a suave-sounding trumpet, keeps the show upbeat (Mark Van Hare's sound design lets us hear every subtle note). As musicals with a relevant, hopeful message go, Pedro Pan soars.