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Penny 4 Eyes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There are benefits and drawbacks to getting two shows for the price of one. This is currently being demonstrated at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, on the 18th floor of 307 West 36th Street in Smash Studios, where Penny-4-Eyes Rock N' Roll Show offers two wildly different performances at the same time. One is the show that's transpiring onstage. The other is the one going on in the audience.

At least at the performance I attended, it seemed as if there were no rules: There was flash photography; one middle-aged woman was making a conspicuous spectacle of herself, bopping controllably in her seat when she wasn't gabbing with a neighbor or gesticulating wildly at the stage; people speaking (full voice) in at least two different languages; and, of course, there was plenty of that obligatory high-voiced, wailing wooping following every song and punctuating - at apparently random intervals - most of them in the middle.

All this suggests not only a spiritless support for what's happening onstage, but a disregard and disrespect for the performers and other audience members. At most shows, this would be unthinkable; here, it's almost appropriate, if still a bit distasteful as far as those of us who appreciate and adhere to proper theatregoing etiquette. But why should those rules apply? This isn't a musical, but a 60-minute wisp of an MTV pilot gone terribly wrong.

With music and lyrics by Jesse Cooper and concept and book by Cooper and Scott Brush, Penny-4-Eyes Rock N' Roll Show is supposedly a public therapy session for a troubled young girl named Penny (Christiana Anbri), who wants to work out frustrations about her self-absorbed mother (Lucia Giannetta) at the behest of her therapist (Lady Altovise). So Penny treats us to the story of her life - basically, she tried to kill herself after her parents' divorce - interspersed with songs that convey her feelings with contemporary rock music (played by a five-piece band).

Or something. The fragmented non-story is hard enough to follow, but the sound design (by Bo Osborn and Amaury Marchena) is so loud in the confined Smash Studios that most of the lyrics are unintelligible (the dialogue is a little better). This was, apparently, intentional - earplugs are provided free with every program, and using them is a very wise idea; why the volume can't simply be turned down is never explained, but that's the kind of thing you're just not supposed to question at a rock musical.

A even more pertinent issue is the content. While there is undoubtedly some musical value to be found in adolescent angst, the therapy frame here prevents numbers from attaining any sort of emotional foothold; these are songs that are being performed for an audience, not connecting directly to anyone's emotions. Given the lyrics, that would be difficult in any event - the sentiments are usually vapid (the song titles tell the story: "Leave It All Behind Me," "Running On Empty," "I Wanna Live"), and they and the book don't particularize Penny as a girl worthy of our attention.

At least two performances impress: Giannetta wows with a Gibraltar-size rock voice which in cadence and forcefulness nearly transcends the over-amplified pop glop surrounding it; Altovise's calling card is her personality, a warm and winning entrée into an otherwise poorly defined character that makes her fun to watch even if most of Altovise's work seems like an audition for Motormouth Maybelle in a bus-and-truck tour of Hairspray.

Anbri, though, is another matter. She doesn't lack for spunk, though most of it emanates from her sky-high hairdo (courtesy of Marie Bove Salon) and makeup; the combination makes her look like an anemic cross between Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper. But though Anbri is not inexperienced (her program bio lists credits like Annie and Les Miserables), her voice is not suited to this role's stratospheric demands; in the higher, beltier sustained passages (of which there are many), her voice sounds unsupported, unhealthy, and just flat-out weak. I can't say whether Anbri is damaging her voice (let alone her hearing) with this role; I hope not, but there were times I seriously questioned her ability to survive the performance.

The audience, though, was on autopilot; nothing was going to stop it from having a great time. But I couldn't help but wonder, during the enthusiastic final ovation, if anyone knew why they were applauding, or even if they'd been able to understand what had been said or sung for the previous 60 minutes; they gave little indication of that during the performance. Maybe that's an immaterial concern, but the two young women - Penny and Anbri - working themselves to death onstage deserve better, even if the show they're in does not.

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Penny 4 Eyes – a rock and roll musical
Through August 6
Smash Studios, Showcase Suite #1, 307 West 36th Street, 18th Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix