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Le Cabaret Grimm
The Groove Factory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Le Cabaret Grimm

Of all the entries in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, Le Cabaret Grimm, playing at the 45th Street Theatre, is surely the most stylish. Picture a ramshackle French nightspot performing Into the Woods with the trappings and orchestrations of The Threepenny Opera, and you'll get close to the unique feeling and sound of this show by Jason Slavick (book, lyrics, and direction) and Cassandra Marsh (music) of the Boston-based company Liars & Believers. Add in more than half a dozen gym-carved bodies, scant costumes (by Kendra Bell), elaborate masks and puppets (respectively by Eric Bornstein and Tyler Brown and Alexandra Caporale), and a swirling dose of whimsy, and you've got a steamy, sexy backdrop ripe for a rambunctious retelling of the classic fairy tale "The Lilting, Leaping Lark."

Or sort of. Although the story technically concerns the quest of Princess Stephanie (Ashley Lanyon) to guide her Lion Prince (Bart Mather) to the full humanity needed to consummate their love, by way the sun, moon, and a daring dove, the show is really about the ways adults co-opt children's stories for their own purposes and teach lessons that the young don't always need to learn. To that end, the real lead is Veronique (Haley Selmon), our garishly Gallic emcee who makes sure we don't forget that someone is pulling the strings, and that we therefore can't take anything, or anyone, at face value. (Her show-stopping chanson is nothing more than a collection of disembodied words and phrases that remind you how little communication occurs by the actual content of words.)

Le Cabaret Grimm, however, is a visual dazzler, transforming from sultry and surly to homey and warm or even bitterly comic within seconds, all without breaking a sweat or varying its stride. The fantastical creatures you encounter belong here, because they're variations on our dreams or aspirations, and integral whether they appear for mere seconds at a time or whole scenes. The rock-solid cast moves so effortlessly between portrayals, from cynical sneers to genuine smiles, and from bumping and grinding to earnest balletic posturing (the choreography, influenced as much by the classics as by carnality, is by Michelle Chassť), that it's difficult to identify particular standouts, though Selmon, Lanyon, and Brandon Timmons as the free-winging dove make among the stronger individual impressions.

The biggest letdown is the music, which wallows more than it should in unadventurous emphatic piano riffs rather than in the more playful melodies the material demands. But the atmosphere is so alluring and the company so aggressively entertaining, you're able to look past the limited and repetitive scoring to fall for the charms of the full musical beneath it. The moral of the evening may be that, in the real world, after you know too much you'll never be able to find a completely happy ending, but at Le Cabaret Grimm walking away without being captivated is every bit as impossible a task.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Le Cabaret Grimm
Through July 28
The 45th Street Theatre (Mainstage) , 354 W. 45th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org


The Groove Factory

The Groove Factory, David James Boyd and Chad Kessler's NYMF musical at the Theatre at St. Clement's about the late-1990s club scene, is nothing to rave about. Rock of Ages meets Valley of the Dolls meets television test pattern, it purports to warn of the excesses of consumption and ambition that drove life at the end of the last millennium, but does so without the slightest bit of care, class, or crispness. Worse, by centering on a hopeless young man named (sigh) Chazz Goodhart, a gay boy from a drug dealer family who so longs to be a D.J. in New York that he's willing to trade his life for the privilege, it makes the act of aspiration itself not a release from earthly concerns but the cause of them. And because Chazz is so blithely stupid and personally unaware, this look at him can't even rise to the level of legitimate tragedy.

All that can happen is all that does happen: Boyd's techno-belch songs string together, endlessly and pointlessly, to define the boundaries of this world, but without ever communicating anything deeper than the impact of throbbing bass on your own chest cavity. The only memorable thing about the musical numbers is their incessant beat; the staging (by Tom Wojtunik), choreography (Buddy Casimano), and even the performances seem designed to distract you from everything that's not being said. For most of the cast, that's a plus, though there are a handful of exceptions: Tommaso Antico sings persuasively as Chazz and acts with an appropriate one-note erotic abandon; Tony Perry convinces as his drag queen uncle; and Jeff Tuohy and Emily McNamara score some much-appreciated late-show points as two clubgoers who challenge Chazz to, uh, be all he can be.

It's less certain that anyone or anything could have a similar influence on The Groove Factory itself. With no emotional core, no plot, and barely any characters (Chazz admires the work of esteemed D.J. Will D. Vinyl, whom Boyd plays, but we hardly learn more about him than that), this is a drawling, droning music video that may as well be sung in a foreign language for all it has to say about the screwed-up ways we pursue ourselves today. When you boil it down to its essence, this is nothing more than a standard good-boy-makes-bad story without a unifying vision, recognizable theme, or moral. The closest it comes to thoughtful advice is "Don't do drugs," which is worthwhile in general but useless here: To survive this 100-minute stumble, you're best off entering the theater armed with a full bottle of NoDoz.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
The Groove Factory
Through July 29
The Theater at St. Clements , 423 W. 46th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org