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Tut
and
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! In 3-D!!!
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tut

Rare indeed is the musical in the New York Musical Theatre Festival that completely defies genre, but Tut, which ends its run today at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, manages it. Is it opera? Oratorio? Ballet? History Channel Documentary? The show, which was written by Marcus Hummon and directed and choreographed by Abdel R. Salaam (of Forces of Nature Dance Theatre), combines the best qualities of each and yet the theatricality of none, resulting in a final product that’s as dull as it is ambitious, and as bizarre as its combination of elements would lead you to believe.

The idea at its core is good: juxtaposing the brief life of the minor Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (Curtis Wiley) with the man who led the expedition that revealed his treasures and history to the world in 1922, Howard Carter (Sean Maclaughlin). Though the author pays lip service to Carter’s financial difficulties (his final attempt was to be his last chance) and his own life-consuming determination, the vast majority of the evening is devoted to exploring the political machinations that surrounded Tut, with an emphasis on the scheming regent Ay (Jesse Means) and Tut’s own suffering half-sister and lover, Ankhesenamun (N’Kenge), with various assassinations, invasions, and retributions the nonstop order of the day.

This is never as exciting as it sounds. The pageantry surrounding it all is so stately, and the performances themselves variable but leaning on heavy, that you never get absorbed in anyone’s concerns. Part of the problem is Wiley, who reads as far too modern, sunny, and insubstantial to convince as the tragic center one of history’s most fateful power plays. Means, possessing a silky-strong baritone of truly operatic breadth, makes a stronger impression, but he’s hampered by his hardened, stand-and-sing delivery. N’Kenge, on the other hand, is an out-and-out belter who soars through her numbers (particularly the mournful late-show “It Is a Hunger”) with ease and bears an ethereal stage presence that’s just right for her role as the heart of New Kingdom inspiration.

Ken Larson (scenic concept), Temishia S. Johnson (lights), and Salaam (costumes) have devised a sumptuous-for-NYMF design scheme that contrasts the warm blues and golds of the royal family with the sandy eternity they’re trying to overcome; and Salaam’s swirling, balletic choreography captures both the optimism of these people struggling to live forever and the earthy torment no one is able to escape. One image, of the towering, billowy ghosts that greet Tut upon arrival in the afterlife, is positively Julie Taymor–esque in its beauty and spiritual reach. And the band, led by musical director Jodie Moore and featuring a mandolin and three different kinds of drums providing live augmentation for more extensive pre-recorded tracks, gives the production a sound and texture unlike anything NYMF has heard to date.

But it’s not enough to lend dramatic gravitas to the evening. The songs aren’t good enough and the dancing isn’t extensive or expansive enough to compensate for the paper-thin narrative. At least the building blocks are there. One suspects that the work’s soul lies with Carter, but he’s given only one song (the quasi-rhapsodic “Wonderful Things”) and dialogue comprising little more than journal entries that ramrod through dry (if necessary) historical context. Carter’s quest for absolution and immortality mirror Tut’s closely, and the relationship between the two men who lived millennia apart yet are inextricably linked seem ripe for exactly this type of song-and-dance treatment. There just needs to be more fire. If Hummon can find it, and unlock the boundless possibilities of this material, Hummon could have a massive hybrid hit on his hands.

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


The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! In 3-D!!!

It’s obvious that writers aren’t going to stop churning out one-note musical parodies of old movies, but is it too much to ask that the shows be funny? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! In 3-D!!! isn’t. Tom Sivak (book, music, and lyrics) and Elizabeth Gelman (book and lyrics) have vivisected the infamous 1962 cult sci-fi–horror bomb, without recognizing that its unrepentant awfulness is what made it a guilty, MST3K-worthy pleasure in the first place. Both the authors and director Tim Drucker have replaced over-the-top earnestness with rampant self-referentiality and burlesque-level humor, creating an overkill evening that never really comes to life.

For example: Their lead character, the brilliant surgeon who’s experimenting with resurrecting dead body parts and is played by Stephen R. Buntrock, has been renamed Dick, apparently solely for the purpose of inserting genital jokes every five minutes. His decapitated lover (Kathy Voytko) is called here — I’m serious — Hedy. The woman Dick kidnaps so he can reattach Hedy’s cranium is Desiree DaBotti (Dana Steingold, making her impressive debut in the role at the performance I saw). Is there any point in continuing?

Well, sort of. The score isn’t half-bad, actually, though it is an early-60s pastiche in the Shaiman-Wittman style that quotes heavily from sources as diverse as girl groups and The Four Seasons. The (constant) diversions into camp melodrama are not especially successful, but I’m ashamed to admit I had the relentless “Adreno-Serum!”, a paean to the magical liquid that makes Dick’s science possible, running through my mind for hours after leaving the theater. And Hedy’s numbers, from the close-harmony “My Dick!” to the screeching “Let Me Die!” to two separate soliloquies, are solidly engaging, due in no small part to Voytko’s renditions of them that display her dynamic, clarion belt and a knack for understatement. Brian Charles Rooney has little to do as Dick’s minion Kurt, but brings his typical wide-eyed flair and thrilling voice to bear on making the nothing part into something memorable.

No one can do much for the show as a whole, which numbs as it ekes out maybe four or five dreary laughs and thinks so little of itself that it eventually abandons its plot entirely. The presence of an “eMCee” played by Jamie Jackson, who keeps insisting this story actually happened, is representative of the evening: Wearing fright glasses and wig, and clad (as are all the actors by costume designer David Withrow and the set by Clifton Chadick) in blacks, whites, and greys, he insinuates himself into a new role and situation in every scene so he can grimace, his eyes can bulge, and he can sell the notion that this is all unpredictable, don’t-miss comedy. To his credit, Jackson looks like he’s having a wonderful time. That’s understandable; for him, every scene is different. From the audience, however, it all looks like sameness that just won’t die.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! In 3-D!!!
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011