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The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody!
and
Winner Take All (A Rock Opera)
part of the
New York International Fringe Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody!

At least half the joy of the New York International Fringe Festival comes from the opportunity to see, for a couple of weeks every August, musicals with ridiculous or incendiary titles. The historical king of this is, of course, Urinetown, but it’s difficult to believe any show will do better this year than The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody! Not only do those 11 words carry a dizzying amount of comedic and narrative weight, they spare critics like me the hundreds of words usually necessary to deploy a semi-detailed plot synopsis! It doesn’t get much better than that. It does, however, get somewhat better than the specifics of Travis Ferguson and Dave Ogrin’s show.

This is a polished and highly professional parodic retelling of the recent real-world travails of a brilliant stage director trying to turn a popular comic book into a Broadway spectacle, all the while battling a befuddled cast, an out-for-blood tabloid gossip columnist, and a mysterious thing called a budget. The director, here named Julie Paymore and played by Avenue Q alumna Jennifer Barnhart, vamps theater owners, tricks her rock-celebrity collaborator, and even commits murder in order to ensure that her vision is not compromised on the (endless) journey to opening night. Nothing, not even the worst press and word of mouth in Main Stem history, will stand in her way.

Librettist-lyricist Ferguson and composer-lyricist Ogrin have provided an amusing score that sails from deftly sampled rock riffs to be-bop to more traditional theatre sounds. The show’s best number is the frantic and addicting “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet,” set amid the social-networking audience witnessing the show’s catastrophic first public preview; but songs like “I’m the Only True Artist” and “Give the People What They Want,” which explore the underlying battle between art and commerce, are just as tuneful and almost as good. Joe Barros has directed and choreographed with restraint and (relative) taste, if not always fervent originality (his dances, in particular, have a college-variety-show vibe to them). And the cast itself is solid, with Barnhart proving herself a true headliner: Her crazed-eye stare and go-for-broke belt at times suggest Ethel Merman at her brash, brassy best.

The Legend of Julie Taymor ultimately fails to satisfy only because it relies too much on its predictability. The parodies and satires that endure long and entertain most heavily are those that say something new, or make you view their subject in even a marginally unexpected way. There’s no question this show is an accurate moment-for-moment document of a particular mega-musical’s mega-implosion, but it extracts no deeper meaning or startling insight from its exploration. If Ferguson and Ogrin wanted nothing more than to present a topical, one-dimensional good time, they’ve succeeded. But by furnishing a work that’s merely a restatement and not any kind of a response, when they seem to possess enough talent and daring to accomplish much more, they end up trapped in a web of their own spinning.

The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody!
Tickets, Venue, and Current Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org


Winner Take All (A Rock Opera)

How surprising can it really be that a musical set mostly in Heaven and Hell is utterly lifeless? In the case of Winner Take All (A Rock Opera), quite a bit. Writers Skip Brevis and Claudia Brevis have stuffed the show with a variety of hard-hitting modern musical styles and, with the help of director-choreographer John Carrafa, engaged a spectacular cast capable of belting them to the rafters and beyond. But the show makes itself so inconsequential that a shrug seems a far more appropriate response than a standing ovation.

There’s an interesting idea at the show’s center. Attractive teenagers Ricky and Catie (Jared Zirilli and Anna Eilinsfeld) are in love, but soon separated by his death in a car crash. Ricky is fast-tracked Upstairs, where Hell soon challenges Heaven to an interplanar Battle of the Bands — it’s a good thing that Ricky is a killer guitarist! But all he wants is Catie back, and even when God’s wing-wearing henchmen return to bring her into the afterlife as well, Ricky can’t shake annoyance that Catie was never willing to stand up for their love to her parents. An argument or two later, Ricky is the Devil’s front man and Catie is literally singing for the angels.

The real point of all this, of course, is the songs; in ranging from doo-wop to R&B to torch to girl- and guy-group trios, the Brevises’ compositions cover all the bases with expert fidelity. And everyone sounds terrific singing them: Brian Charles Rooney is a supreme standout as the Michael Jackson–Elton John–John Lennon–like Devil, wielding an endlessly malleable voice that’s equal parts harsh in character and gorgeous in tone. But Angels Jacquelyn Graham, Darren Lorenzo, and Kyle Lamar Mitchell, Devilettes Kat Nejat and Zakiya Young, and Narrator Trent Armand Kendall also join Zirilli and Eilinsfeld in rounding out a company that keeps you riveted with the strength of their vocals.

Unfortunately, they’re not good enough to combat the work’s prevailing meaninglessness. First, we see Ricky and Catie for only a couple of minutes before they’re split up, during which they have time to sing only one ‘80s pop-power ballad—also the most mundane number in the show. Second, a war between Afterlives does not have any inherent stakes for people on our side of eternity, so it must compensate with meticulous plotting: Here, Heaven apparently just sort of has to accept a challenge from Hell, which is nonsensical to begin with and isn’t helped by the potential consequences of a win for either side not meriting even a passing mention.

Fantastic songs and singers naturally wither on this kind of anti-dramatic vine. Carrafa has staged Winner Take All with a heavy-duty concert concept that’s unquestionably appropriate, but if the Brevises just wanted to showcase their songs, an actual concert would be less distracting and distancing a delivery mechanism than a book show intent on ignoring its book.

Winner Take All (A Rock Opera)
Tickets, Venue, and Current Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org