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Kingdom
Desperate Measures
The Children

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Kingdom

William Shakespeare's influence on world culture is well documented. But the connection between any given work of the Bard and any given musical is usually pointed up far more directly than is the case in Kingdom, the innovatively intelligent rap musical by Aaron Jafferis (book and lyrics) and Ian Williams (music) playing at the Barrow Group Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, that examines the struggle of the urban Latino community through a lens equally as epic and tragic as it is invigorating.

Kingdom's plot focuses on the ascendancy and internal conflicts of the Latin Kings - particularly two troubled young men, Andres and Juan (Flaco Navaja and Ronny Mercedes), who get mixed up with them following an altercation at a club, and see the group as a way out of their lonely, potentially worthless lives.

Of far greater importance are family, honor, morality, responsibility, and revenge, great Shakespearean concepts that make the Kings' ongoing rivalry with the drug-dealing gang Sólidos, and more importantly the leadership struggles within the Kings, more than just another cautionary teen tale. There are aspects of that here, especially when the violence between the groups escalates and the cycle of hatred threatens to continue unabated forever. But Kingdom's sobering, unflinching look at these young people's lives leaves no room for sentimentality, and a happy ending is never assured.

You are, however, guaranteed some thrilling, in-your-face performances that conduct the raw heat of the characters directly into your soul. The most powerful work is from Gerardo Rodriguez, who plays the Kings' leader Cano with a paternal air as authoritative as it is potentially violent, and who displays a voice of such commanding strength that Cano's controlling magnetism is never in question. Michael Improta and Marisa Echeverria nearly match Rodriguez as Cano's brash younger brother Geronimo and world-wise sister Marisa, who must face their obligations to family and culture sooner than they anticipate. Mercedes doesn't disappoint as the play's uncertain moral nexus, but Navaja never convinces as a pauper transformed into a prince upon connecting with his roots.

That's an important aspect of the show that doesn't play as it should in Navaja's shaky hands, but there's little else in Kingdom that doesn't excite. Louis Moreno's direction is steely and hard-driving, and the score is the first I've experienced to make a viable case for rap and hip-hop as theatre music. Connoisseurs of the proper rhyme must make some allowances, but the score is packed with intense numbers that satisfy lyrically, musically, and dramatically. The best are "Lucha," for the inspiring Cano; "Lift" for the inspired Andres; and the 11-o'clocker "Curse" for a fed-up Marisa. But all the songs, like everything else in Kingdom, prove that Jafferis and Williams are worthy musical inheritors of Shakespeare's legacy.

Desperate Measures

A more traditional - and less successful - Shakespeare adaptation at NYMF is Desperate Measures, playing at the 45th Street Theatre. A whimsical Wild-West riff on Measure for Measure, this is the story of Johnny Blood (Max von Essen), imprisoned for murder and facing execution because of the fanatical policies of the newly installed German governor (Nick Wyman). When Johnny's sister, Susanna (Ginifer King), a soon-to-be nun, attempts to convince the governor to set Johnny free, he agrees, but only if she'll surrender her virtue to him. Susanna and the Johnny-friendly sheriff (Merwin Foard) concoct a plan to substitute saloon girl Bella Rose (Jenny Powers), who just happens to be Johnny's flame, and... Well, you can probably guess the rest.

Librettist-lyricist Peter Kellogg has skillfully found Old West analogues for Shakespeare's situations, and Eleanor Reissa's concept of the show as informal ranch entertainment (complete with set pieces hung on a clothesline) works. So does David Friedman's knee-slapping, honky-tonk music, which provides the right sense of ironic flavor to the proceedings. Von Essen, Foard, King, and Powers are excellent in their roles, bright and comic; Wyman's sauerkraut sourness could be toned down a bit; and Patrick Garner's portrayal as a drunken priest could be bumped up a lot.

But there's a synthetic quality about everything that prevents Desperate Measures' frothy fun from ever feeling fresh. While the songs are clever, nicely scored, and very well sung, they don't have much in the way of original zip: Only "Just for You," sung by Bella and Johnny upon reuniting, seems to have much life of its own, and that's only because it's a two-person hoedown with lyrics more intermittently witty than the shows' others. But the various ballads and group numbers constituting the rest of the score quickly begin to sound alike, and never seem like they need to be sung in the late-1800s West more than on the 2006 Eastern Seaboard. Attractive as the songs are, their overly utilitarian nature and the book's too-dutiful plotting suggest that Desperate Measures is itself a little too desperate to please.

The Children

At least Desperate Measures can claim a first-class pedigree; The Children, another NYMF musical at the Barrow Group Theatre, can't. Stan Richardson (book and lyrics) and Hal Goldberg (music) based their show on Carlton J. Albright's 1980 camp horror classic about nuclear power proliferation and pre-adolescent alienation that... well, results in a horde of zombie children who enact revenge on the adults of Ravensback, Massachusetts.

Broad even by the high standards of Silence! The Musical (last year's Fringe Festival takeoff on The Silence of the Lambs), The Children visits all the expected parodic places, complete with detours through gratuitous nudity (male and female), a stage full of severed hands, and plenty of high-pitched shrieking. Is it entertaining? Undoubtedly; director Tony Speciale has staged the piece within an inch of its lovingly low-budget life, and scarcely a moment passes without a joke of some sort, which ensures quite a few will hit. And with a cast including Off-Off-Broadway comedy superstar Jeff Hiller as a lanky zombie boy and a man-hungry mother, Jonathan Rayson as a concerned father, and Tally Sessions as a duty-bound sheriff, the material is impeccably performed.

This would mean something if the material meant something, but this is one of the more negligible of movie-parody musicals to hit the Festival boards (yes, even moreso than Silence!). Thanks to the 10 talented performers, the book and songs hit their marks effectively in the moment, but usually vanish like a zombie's hands under a machete's blade, making no lasting impression whatsoever.

The exception is a bizarrely lengthy sequence in the second half that charts Sessions and Rayson's time-sensitive zombie investigation while a horny Hiller (in a fabulously frumpy wig) vampily tries to reach them by radio. The resulting musical scene, which utilizes some terrific music and beautifully blended vocals, is probably the most extravagantly realized 13 minutes of musical nothing NYMF - or any theatre festival - has ever seen.


Kingdom
TBG Arts Center, 312 West 36th Street, on the Fourth floor, West of Eighth Avenue
Wednesday, Sep. 13 at 8PM
Friday, Sep. 15 at 4:30PM
Saturday, Sep. 16 at 4:30PM
Saturday, Sep. 16 at 8PM
Tuesday, Sep. 19 at 8PM
Saturday, Sep. 23 at 1PM

Desperate Measures
45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tuesday, September 12 at 8PM
Friday September 15 at 4:30PM
Saturday, September 16 at 8PM
Sunday, September 17 at 8PM
Wednesday, September 20 at 4:30
Sunday, September 24 at 4:30PM

The Children
TBG Arts Center, 312 West 36th Street
Tuesday, September 12 at 8PM
Friday, September 15 at 8PM
Saturday, September 16 at 1PM
Sunday, September 17 at 8PM
Wednesday, September 20 at 1PM
Sunday, September 24 at 1PM

Tickets online at www.nymf.org