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Kiki Baby
and
My History of Marriage
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kiki Baby

Of all the musical treatments of the gross missteps of Weimar and pre–World War II Germany, surely the most overtly harrowing must be Kiki Baby. In this New York Musical Theatre Festival offering at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, a four-year-old girl (the Kiki of the title) displays a shred of natural singing talent that is promptly exploited by those around her who, by refusing to do or say anything that might upset their Wunderkind's supposedly unique talent, turn Kiki into one of the most dangerous (and spoiled) souls 20th-century Europe had to endure.

What Lonny Price (book, lyrics, and direction), Kitt Lavoie (book), and Grant Sturiale (music and lyrics) get unquestionably right in their adaptation of René Fülöp-Miller’s period novel (translated into English as Sing, Brat, Sing) is their presentation of the hypnotically slow march of appeasement. It begins with the impresario (Steven Rosen) who discovers Kiki (a fully committed Jenn Colella) and gradually infects her mother (Jill Paice) and the various hangers-on who, at the beginning, have only Kiki’s best interests at heart. Their being consumed by their own desires, and blind to their impact on the world outside their field of vision, is chilling to watch, especially as staged (by Price and Matt Cowart) and choreographed (by Josh Rhodes) as a children’s play-time musicale.

The score, too, is an accomplishment, bouncy and infectious, but possessing throbbing undercurrents in Michael Starobin and Steve Cohen’s orchestration (which includes an accordion and euphonium) that more intimately express the unsettling populist sound Kurt Weill created for Bertolt Brecht. Intensely melodic and sweeping through a range of colors, songs like “You Gotta Listen,” “Entourage,” and “Love Love Love” swirl with surprising abandon; the gentler strains of “All For You” and “You’ll See” capture the more personal, yet no less scary, side of things. A company of outstanding actor-singers, including Adam Heller, Megan Lawrence, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Jim Walton keep the vocals vibrant and surging under Mark Hartman’s musical direction.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough checks on the hard-sell antics to sustain the action over two hours. Though Paice and Louis Hobson, who plays Kiki’s responsibility-minded father, turn in sensitive portrayals of people wracked with guilt, confusion, and obligation, everyone else positively drips with slinky malice from the get-go. This, sadly, includes Colella, who couldn’t be more vivacious as Kiki (and who adopts just the right adorable-with-an-edge voice) but targets the tiny girl’s essential (and critical) innocence and playfulness in only isolated instances. The one-track nature of the storytelling also lacks depth, which becomes increasingly evident as the plot plows on and the characters develop in only superficial ways. Musically and structurally, the second act is a shambles, with a song stack notably inferior to that of Act I, and the writers and directors getting far too adventurous for their own good.

In "The Hand Can," they make the figurative monster so literal that the evening can never recover from it. And in the climax, set at Kiki's La Scala debut (yes, seriously), "My Habitat" goes the full JonBonét Ramsey, to middling effect. The trouble with these scenes is that some things are better (and more theatrically) left to the imagination, and can turn an audience against characters and plot points with which they might otherwise sympathize. In a show as fragile as this one, the balance between sweet and sour is absolutely crucial, and the proper mixture has not yet been found.

The production is, however, awash in haunting images, sounds, and concepts that linger in your mind long after the performance has concluded. That’s one mark of a show with great promise, though this one needs to work harder to precisely articulate what (and how) it wants to be, aside from a creepy cautionary tale about how easily small problems can become big catastrophes. That alone isn't enough to place Kiki Baby in the same pantheon of greatness as the identically themed Cabaret and Grand Hotel. But it's not a bad start.

Kiki Baby
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011


My History of Marriage

It's possible that if George Furth and Stephen Sondheim had not written Company in 1970, there might be more of a need in today's musical theatre for My History of Marriage. Yes, it's doubtful, but a diffuse meditation on modern relationships, as told from the point of view of a devoutly unattached New Yorker, would likely still be able to find a niche somewhere in the canon. As it is, Lee Kalcheim (book and lyrics), David Shire (music and lyrics), and Samuel Lord Kalcheim (additional music) have to settle for doing a female version of the Furth–Sondheim classic without that show's benefit of going (however gently) against the popular grain.

This results, at least in the current New York Musical Theatre Festival incarnation at Peter Norton Space, in an inch-deep exploration of the topic that seems all the shallower because it's trying to be so comprehensive. The setup itself is more befitting a tight, urban, and no-song play than a musical, which doesn't start things off right. Nan (Lois Robbins) is finally emerging from her years-long divorce funk to work on what could be a lucrative new assignment: a history of connubiality, spanning from the Prehistoric era to the hysteria-drenched squabbles about gay marriage that wrack the U.S. in our present time.

While she's pounding away at her laptop, she finds her own biases challenged by her agent Judy (Bonnie Franklin) and her partner of 18 years, Yvette (Blair Ross), who are planning to wed now that it's legal in New York; her son Aaron (Michael Liscio Jr.) and her virginal, from-the-sticks research assistant Ellen (Brittney Lee Hamilton), who are both fascinated by the art of the hook-up. Then there's the matter of the three men who just won't leave Nan alone: Henry (Brian Sutherland), the interested-in-more-ways-than-one publisher; Rabbi Weiss (Philip Hoffman), whom Nan keeps running into by chance in the rain; and her ex-husband, Peter (Steve Blanchard), who just can't stay away.

The show isn't structured like a revue, but it sure plays like one, with each new section of Nan's book giving way to some silly pastiche song ("I Want to Hunt" for the caveman days, "Hi Honey I'm Home" for the fabulously fantastic 50s, and so on), and most of the other numbers suggesting special material shoehorned (and not effortlessly) into the story at hand. Nan and Henry spend minutes singing about her shoes, for example, Aaron and Ellen won't shut up about their vacuity, a number called "Sex With My Ex" is exactly what you'd expect, and there's even a girl's gab session set in spin class ("Ride"). Because Shire is a master tunesmith, none of these is at all unpleasant to listen to. But they make no lasting impact on either the ear or the heart.

The latter is addressed predominantly by Franklin, who delivers Judy's songs with such simple, plaintive feeling that it almost seems she's in the wrong show. Her singing of the dissolution of her Ozzie-and-Harriet dreams, and what she learned to replace them with, is the true heart of the show, but it exists largely on the periphery. Almost everyone else gets more stage time (Yvette is a functional non-entity until the late second act), but their problems are far more superficial. As such, the actors can't do much with their characters; Robbins, in the marathon ringleader role, works feverishly, but the part is too chilly and unpredictable for her to impress as much as she did in the revival of Cactus Flower earlier this year.

Michael Bush has directed with as much subtlety as the material allows, but this isn't a musical that demands that approach. It wants to take a broad view of a subject typically spoken of in the narrowest possible terms by all sides in the public discourse, but wants to do so without saying or doing anything controversial along the way. At that it succeeds, but more zest—any zest—would be an improvement. Company was willing to step on a few toes; until My History With Marriage is as well, it won't be able to communicate much about being alive.

My History of Marriage
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011