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Twilight in Manchego

The Bubble

Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Twilight in Manchego

How can you lose something you never gained in the first place? In his new musical Twilight in Manchego, Matt Gould demands that you assume the sorrow of a close-knit community coping with the accidental death of an adolescent boy without telling you who he, or they, are. If you’re unusually empathetic, this won’t matter, as Gould masterfully incorporates enough soul-splitting religious fervor to push you over the emotional edge. But the show’s too-easy questions and even simpler answers don’t make the process quite as easy for everyone else.

Until Leo (Lucas Steele) is killed in a car crash near the musical’s halfway point, the story is more concerned with the school’s adults: the progressive social-studies teacher (Adam Halpin) and his sassy math teacher friend (Natalie Venetia Belcon), the bracingly old-fashioned dynamo (Leslie Alexander), the kind-hearted but realistic principal (Chuck Cooper), and his nerdy-but-lovable aide (Valerie Wright). We see eight students (including Leo), but they come across as only pushable pawns in the grander game of old-versus-new being waged in the faculty lounge.

So when teachers and students must unite in grief, Gould is handicapped by a lack of context for their pain. The rapid-fire songstack (10 full numbers are sung before the accident) and Billy Porter’s cranked-up kinetic staging lead Leo from home to class to class to class with no room for reflection or even identification of the people supposedly closest to him. Leo has one scene with his mother (Jessica Phillips) establishing the too-busy life they share. But when Leo’s spirit returns to persuade a classmate (Jenna Coker-Jones) to help him complete one final assignment, you can’t help but wonder who she is and why he chose her.

Gould’s central point is that it shouldn’t take a tragedy to halt the frantic pace of modern life, but his message is undermined by how little we know about the loss the people of Manchego endure. Ninety minutes is not sufficient to tell this story, at least with all the character threads and subplots Gould introduces and discards; who’s gay and who’s not, whether a shipment of computers will ever be delivered, and who will be the school’s teacher of the year don’t currently seem like issues worthy of the amount of time Gould devotes to them.

If too many early songs are unnecessarily overt examples of pseudo-Sondheim breathlessness, the second half bursts with long-lined melodies and heartfelt expressions of uncertainty, perseverance, and frustration within an overarching sadness. (The title song and “I Got a Secret,” a parting song for Leo and his mother, are particularly beautiful.) The cast likewise comes alive when they must delve beneath the surface Gould explores early on: Cooper’s sensitive authority, Belcon’s rationality, and Alexander’s abrasiveness land especially well, though Wright’s nasal mousiness is more annoying than endearing.

So, unfortunately, is Steele, whose easily overwhelmed workaholic take on Leo does little to arouse our sympathy. In fairness to Steele, however, Gould has given him so little to work with, it’s not surprising he’s as in the dark as we are about who Leo is and what he wants others to become. Gould needs to shine more light on this, and many other things, about Twilight in Manchego, for it to attain its full, celestial promise.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival




The Bubble

When the patron saint of economic boom and busts, going by the name of (I’m not kidding) Dotgod, descends to sing and dance with a sinewy soul trio known as (I’m still not kidding) Broadband, the new musical The Bubble loses what little credibility it had as a parody of the “dot-com” era of late 1990s and early 2000s. Authors Karen Paull (book and lyrics), Wendy Robbins (book), and Grammy Award winner David Pack (music and lyrics) try to elicit a socially and economically aware musical comedy from the depths of Silicon Valley, but instead demonstrate the dangers of musical-theatre irrational exuberance.

Matt (John Jeffrey Martin), a law-school grad who can’t pass the bar exam, sacrifices his dreams of being an environmental lawyer for the juicy allure of Go4itt.com, a skyrocketing website that... uh... Well, no one - especially its employees - really knows what it does, aside from burn through venture capital. But that’s enough for everyone except the hippie protestors, led by a beautiful woman named Harmony (Mariand Torres), who are working to save the yellow-bellied hoo-doo, a bird whose native homeland was paved over to create Go4itt.com’s parking lot.

Sex or success - what a choice for Matt! Since the Go4itt.com folks are typically presented as either opportunistic or doltish and the protestors as exotic and sensual, there’s not much doubt what path our hero will take. Oh, there’s vague interference by the evil Dotgod (John E. Brady) who tempts Matt with the valuable stock options he’s a sucker for, and Dotgod’s good-natured wife Dotbroad (Danielle Lee Greaves). But The Bubble is essentially a long-winded excuse for mocking the herd mentality that created the tech bubble then and the just-burst housing bubble now. (Tulips, however, remain unscathed.)

Except for the disjointed finale, a rote but pleasant “Seasons of Love” or “The Song of Purple Summer” knock-off called “Love is the Only Option,” Pack and Paull’s songs are listless time fillers that ramble aimlessly around pastel-smudged ideas of right and wrong. The songs are almost all about money, either the accumulation or the repudiation of it, rather than character, and are as short on laughs as they are satirical insight. Even the curtain-call number, with the entire cast grooving to a celebration of that pesky endangered bird, is staged and choreographed by Terry Berliner as one big, fine-feathered nonsequitur.

The actors are seldom more than functional, with Martin too soft-spoken and wishy-washy as Matt and Torres playing only a one-note environmental chanteuse. Brady, though, is a very good sport in an embarrassingly misconceived role, and Greaves gives the closest thing to a vivid performance with her diva-like invocation of a goddess of divine common sense. Amy Rutberg and the Broadband women (Andrea Dora, Emily Drennan, and Jene Hernandez) supply the show with some legitimate sex appeal, but their steam heat is too often whisked away when the show rushes by with other things on its mind. In trying too hard to be relevant, The Bubble forgets to be human, proving that artists, like hard-core businessmen, can just as easily fall for the wrong things.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival