There are plenty of reasons to accuse contemporary musicals of being more concerned with themselves than with the world around them, but it’s apparently just as possible for a musical to be too relevant. Zapata!, playing through tomorrow at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is not content to explore the crusades of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who fought until his death (in 1919) for peasant land rights, it also wants us to see and appreciate how his values sync up with every group that sees public uprising as the first step toward a better life. But authors Peter and Ana Edwards (he wrote the score and, with her, the book) undercut an otherwise persuasive personal history by insisting on their argument too strongly.
The lead is not technically the title character (whom Enrique Acevedo plays with considerable force), but Tom (Andrew Call), an Occupy Wall Street devotee who’s cracked in the head with a sign by a fellow protestor and imagines in his delirium that he’s Zapata’s hot-tempered brother Eufemio. The siblings rail against the injustice of property distribution and fight their own baser impulses in trying to get a square deal for Mexico’s poor before things end badly for both and Tom must return to the present to apply what he’s learned.
Aside from the usual continuity questions the Edwards don’t bother to address—how does Tom know so much about the Zapatas’ cause? How can we see events that unfold when he’s not around? — it’s never clear what, beyond the simplest moral (“fight for what you love, not against what you hate”) the takeaway is, or how it directly relates to the present day. Are the Edwards advocating Occupiers literally take up guns to get what they want? If so, why are the final scenes all about peace, when blood is what fuels the story? More problematic is that we never get to know or care about Tom, and because the Mexican "time traveling" stuff obviously isn't real, we can't grab onto that, either. In striving for topicality, the Edwards have ended up with rudderlessness.
Though the score is masterfully composed and spicily evocative (the orchestrations and arrangements are by Jesse Vargas), nearly every song being an ear-splitting anthem and bearing titles like “We’ve Done Enough Talking,” “I’d Rather Die a Thousand Deaths,” “I Fight for Land,” and “I’ve Lived All My Life for My People,” is more exhausting than exhilarating. The good news is that director Elizabeth Lucas and choreographer Luis Salgado have staged the show with gusto, and watching it unfold, especially with the never-ending rainbow swirl of Asa Benally’s terrific costumes, is fun even when it's nonsensical. And the cast is a dream, with Acevedo and Call a perfectly pitched duo, Maria Eberline steamy and alluring as Zapata’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and Natalie Toro a piercing firebrand as her passionate mother.
But until the Edwards tighten their focus, the acting troupe has nothing to sell. They, and the audience, might have an easier time if the Occupy frame were either downplayed or dropped altogether. It’s admirable to want to show how these sorts of movements have intertwined and informed each other throughout history, but this one provides confusion rather than clarity, and Occupy's public fizzling lends no triumph to Tom's accomplishments and thus probably does Zapata! more harm than good.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Brittany and Newell Bullen's NYMF entry Shelter, running at the PTC Performance Space, lives up to the promise of its title, for better and worse. It is, indeed, a musical about life inside a battered women's home, and is loaded with all the clichés, limitations, and heartfelt sense of doing the right thing you'd expect. There's a plucky and inspirational social worker, a wise-cracking cook, troubled cases ranging from paranoids to street walkers to seemingly average women and even a former TV star, and, of course, a tragedy or two that puts all this in perspective for us.
Because the show, which originated in Utah, is so well-intentioned; because it succeeds on the most basic level (and no others) in what it tries to do and gets you sufficiently involved in it; and because for every ticket sold the production donates $3 to local organizations serving the homeless and disenfranchised, I'm disinclined to take it too much to task for its arid, predictable book, effective but rickety direction (by Brighton Sloan), and raw and polish-free performances (though Latoya Rhodes, as the social worker with her own troubled past, and Jessica Pearce, as the doomed woman with the deceptively perfect life, are particularly good in their roles).
I'd rather discuss Shelter's one true surprise: its arrangements. Clark Bullen has worked wonders on the ruthlessly average songs, transforming musicalized wails for help and generalized hopelessness into a ravishing soundscape that taps into the very essence of the streets: gritty, grimy, and horrific, but with a better and cleaner existence somehow always in sight. When the 18 women in the cast get together and raise their voices simultaneously, as they do often, you're able to hear each one as both an individual and a crucial piece of a much larger construction. Nothing sounds quite like you think it should, but it's impossible to imagine any song, or any woman onstage, ever sounding more right.
Even when the writers fail to delineate their characters as unique creations through their dialogue and experiences, which is sadly most of the time, they impress upon you every nuance of the rich soul and humanity that can never be destroyed even with the harshest of blows but that must be recognized and cultivated. One may wish that this spirit were integrated as fully throughout the rest of the evening, and if it were Shelter would probably seem like more than a valiant effort that's too soggy to ever catch fire. Still, it can't be easy to plumb the gutter for society's most lamentable cast-offs and find some way to make them soar in spite of that — yet that is just what the Bullens have movingly and miraculously done.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival