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Delilah

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Just when it seems the musical-theatre pop opera is dead, someone insists on resuscitating it. While Delilah, part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, may not be the final nail in the coffin, the genre has fallen so low that considerably more than this Off-Off-Broadway mediocrity will be required to get it back in the public's good graces.

At least the show doesn't do anything halfway. Written by Robin Brownfield (book and lyrics) and Ken Kurland (music), with additional contributions from director Seth Duerr, Delilah's utter seriousness and spiritual devotion to its musical progenitors - Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and even Aida spring to mind - are so complete that even its thoroughly overblown and underwritten nature can't prevent some enjoyment, however unintentional, from being derived from it.

What the creators apparently intended was to fashion a serious, epic musical from a few chapters in the Old Testament's Book of Judges. But, in attempting to make the show relevant to modern audiences, they've crippled it with heavy-handed allusions to the current War on Terror, even going so far as to include an out-of-character denunciation of it from Duerr at the end of the show's principal action. Even the most poorly conceived and constructed pop operas are usually more subtle.

They're also, as a rule, more dramatically viable. While some shows (particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber's) have succeeded at telling stories through a rapid succession of musical song-scenes eschewing traditional storytelling forms, those shows are usually written and directed in a way that allows the story to make at least a modicum of sense. Delilah's 37 songs are spread out over ten ambiguous scenes with few connecting threads of music or drama to draw the audience along the path of the story.

Then again, how much help does the audience need? The story of the willful Delilah, who cut off Samson's source of strength when she chopped off the seven locks of his God-given hair, is a well-known one, even if many of the details are less familiar. Delilah's writers overcompensate for this by highlighting the tale's foundational Philistine-Israelite conflict while trivializing the Samson-Delilah relationship so much that those characters' contributions tend to detract from the story rather than enhance it.

That the lyrics and music combine to form a series of pseudo-pop songs of at best middling quality, and that many of the resulting numbers (particularly the ballads) are generic enough to make Elton John take pride in the dramatic content of his theatrical compositions, doesn't help. Nor does the accompaniment, keyboard and drum synthesizers played by musical director Les Horan and percussionist Adel Ismael, which frequently overwhelms the actors and obscures the lyrics.

Director Duerr, however, is surprisingly successful at negotiating the small WorkShop Theatre Company mainstage with his cast of 11, and is capable of rendering scenes as intimate or expansive as required. Combined with the costumes (by Brownfield, Erica Morgan Sims, and Everett O'Neil) and lights (Duerr and Sims), there are times it appears that Delilah, as a production, may transcend its material.

Those hopes are usually shattered when the performers open their mouths - their acting is often only adequate, and their singing even less accomplished. The most damaging performance comes from Carl Dowling, who plays Samson; he's not interesting as an actor, and is so significantly overparted by his role, he usually comes across as might Michael Cumpsty in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar. Seth Duerr, as the leader the Philistines, and Ann Weisbecker, as Samson's ill-fated wife, create more compelling characters and are easier on the ears.

At least the title role is appropriately cast. Uzo Aduba, who sometimes suggests a warm Heather Headley, is a resourceful actress who can evoke heat, sympathy, and pathos in equal measure, as well as an accomplished singer, the only one in the cast capable of really making the music sound good. As her vocal performances (particularly "Killing in the Name of God") are as close as Delilah gets to being pleasurable, it's hardly surprising when a contrived plot development prevents her from singing in the play's final scene.

That scene, with or without Aduba's exceptional voice, is nonetheless the show's most exciting, if only because it's the one time the writing, performances, and staging fuse into something both theatrical and watchable. The rest of Delilah is too dependent on Aduba to lift it from the murky swamp of message-laden melodrama in which it's mired, and as good as Aduba is, that's something beyond even her considerable talents.

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Midtown International Theatre Festival
Delilah
Through July 31
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
WorkShop Theatre, MainStage Space, 4th Floor, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix 212.868.4444