Is the time right for a musical like Ministry of Progress, which just opened at the Jane Street Theatre? Without a doubt. But whether the time is right - or can ever be right - for the musical itself is another question altogether.
Intended to be an indictment of our modern culture, Ministry of Progress is instead a puzzling mixture of styles, thrown together with great abandon and more than a little inconsistency. That the musical's creator and director, Kim Hughes, has put a lot of work into it is evident from the show's first moments, but whether the world needs this dyspeptic blend of 1984, Rent, Urinetown, and Captain Kangaroo is never made clear.
Nor is it evident why nine composers - John Beltzer, Philip Dessinger, Alex Forbes, Kathy Hart, Hughes herself, Gary Levine, Christian Martirano, Jeremy Schonfeld, and Tony Visconti - were needed to contribute 16 numbers to the score when the show apparently needs no songs at all. In adapting Charlie Morrow's radio play to the musical stage, Hughes has done just about everything except give the material a reason to be a musical.
Because, despite there being nine actors in the cast, there are only really two characters of note - the hero, Dave Glutterman (played by Jason Scott Campbell), and Everyone Else. Most of the other figures do have names, like Peter Rabbitch (Brian J. Dorsey) or Ms. Benedetto (Maia A. Moss) or Dr. Gene Poole (Christian Whelan), but they all serve the same function: to break Dave down and prevent him from succeeding in his quest.
Specifically, he applied to renew his driver's license online and received one bearing a different name and a wildly improbable birth year. In order to get matters straightened out, he has to venture to the Ministry of Progress. When there, he discover it's a labyrinthine dystopian bureaucracy that has trapped everyone else inside and threatens to imprison him as well, and it's only his struggle for individuality that will keep him alive long enough to reach his goal.
There's a good musical in here someplace, but the creators haven't yet found it. Dave's foes are mostly comic, not threatening, which doesn't help the audience identify with, or feel for, Dave. (That Campbell is the least interesting actor/singer in the cast doesn't help; Dave is supposed to suffer from Midwest na´vetÚ, but Campbell still doesn't make it easy to care about him.)
It's also not useful for Dave's foes to have an immediate change of heart just by his mere appearance. The show's meaning is clear: one person's pursuit of Truth in the face of Great Opposition will change the lives of whoever observes him, but the musical itself doesn't grab onto this until far too late. That's when, just minutes before the end of the show, there's a slow-motion sequence in which Dave tackles his captors one by one in a final quest to obtain his license. It provides the only real chills in the show and is the only time the story really makes sense. (Wedding music to the situation at hand is surprisingly effective after all.)
The five-piece band (conducted by Tommy Farragher and working under Martirano's musical direction) sounds pretty good (if loud) throughout; Adriana Serrano's pipe-and-platform scene design is spare but efficient; Fabio Toblini's costumes are creative; and Jason Kantrowitz's lighting, if occasionally hyperactive, is fine. The real star of the production, though, is Greg Slagle, whose video designs are so superb as to almost seem like characters themselves.
As it stands, they're more interesting than most of the actors - only Moss and Jennifer McCabe (as Sylvia, Dave's potential love interest and another Ministry prisoner) approach real humanity. The rest of the cast is talented, but frequently underemployed. Then again, having to sing these songs can't make it easy for anyone; just their titles - like "Drone Data," "We Totally Own You," "They Make It Look Easy," and "Follow Your Heart" - give a good idea why most of them look like they'd prefer to be almost anywhere else.
Audiences at this show might well find themselves agreeing with that sentiment as they search, frequently in vain, for situations or characters with which they can get emotionally involved. Ministry of Progress is not a total loss - in terms of stage technology, it's one of the most exciting musicals since Radiant Baby. Too bad most of the rest of the show feels like progress in all the wrong directions.
Ministry Of Progress